Three ways to take the stress out of international summer travel

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

In the summer of 1972, the earliest year for which Statistics Canada keeps numbers, 282,210 Canadians returned from trips to foreign countries other than the United States. It took another 16 years before that number finally cracked the 500,000 mark in the summer of 1988, and 17 more years before the one-million mark was passed in the summer of 2005.

If the people who worked in the airports in that busy summer of 2005 thought it was a hectic couple of months, they hadn’t seen anything yet. During July and August 2014, more than 1.7 million Canadians returned from foreign countries other than the U.S. — a 70 percent traffic increase in just nine years.

If the 2000-2014 trend were to continue, by the end of the decade an additional 300,000 Canadians will be coming home from long-haul foreign destinations every July and August, boosting total returnee traffic during those two peak months past the 2 million mark.

That might turn out to be good for Winnipeg’s long efforts to land more long-haul flights. Not only is demand for international travel continuing to rise, but the additional crowding at Canada’s traditional ports of entry and the upcoming launch of new versions of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families — which will be able to fly nonstop for the first time from Winnipeg to the British Isles, bits of northwestern Europe or Hawai’i  — could make new seasonal services economically viable.

Yet in the meantime, this soaring demand creates a more pressing concern for Canadians this summer: how to keep one’s sanity in airports and on airplanes that are more tightly packed with people than ever.

1. Mind who you fly with. Even though the days are long gone when airlines advertised that they were so much fun to fly with you might not want to leave the aircraft, or showed supposed airline employees singing and dancing about what great service they offer (yes, that’s Suzanne Somers, pre-Three’s Company), there are still some airlines that have better reputations than others. Skytrax annually assesses the world’s airlines on quality of customer service, assigning one star to North Korea’s Air Koryo, the ultimate bottom-feeder, and five stars to the world’s best airlines, all of which are based in Asia or the oil-rich Middle East.

If you’re going to Asia, try flying Cathay Pacific or Japan’s ANA, two of the five-star airlines serving Canada. Air Canada is a safe enough bet as one of only four four-star North American airlines (the others being Porter, JetBlue and Virgin America). Other four-star airlines that partner with either Air Canada or WestJet include China Southern, Japan Air Lines, Korean Air, Air New Zealand, Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines.

2. Mind where you sit. A passably comfortable seat for someone of average height and waistline should be at least 17.5 inches wide, and offer a seat pitch of at least 31 inches, that being the distance from the back of your seat to the one in front of you. But more tightly packed seats previously found on short-haul feeder flights, 17 inches wide at a 30-inch pitch, have been making their way on to long-haul flights as airlines try to pack more passengers into each aircraft. Air Canada Rouge and Austrian Airlines are the worst offenders; though even the regular Air Canada has taken heat for outfitting some of its Boeing 777-300s with 458 seats, compared to just 299 seats on British Airways’ 777-300s.

Before booking, look for the aircraft’s seat pitch and width information on the airline’s web site or on SeatGuru.com. If the seat pitch is less than 31 inches, or the width is less than 17.5 inches, expect to feel squished.

3. Treat schedules as being somewhat like a politician’s promises. The typical flight, believe it or not, arrives at its destination almost exactly on time, or at least within five minutes of the scheduled time — and it’s the typical, or median, travel time that airlines normally use in setting their schedules to maximize aircraft and staff productivity.

While it’s in the airlines’ best interests to base their schedules on median travel times, it’s not in your interest as a traveler to do so, as this could force you to run for your connecting flight or wait in line to be rebooked if that flight leaves without you.

Canada’s two major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, have been doing a fairly good job of keeping to schedule recently, but it’s still in your best interest to allow enough time in your schedule to handle a 30-minute delay (which will give you about 90 percent certainty) or a 45-minute delay if a missed connection would be more than just an inconvenience (which boosts the certainty level to about 95 percent on most airlines).

Delta and United, the two other big airlines serving Winnipeg, have been suffering some long delays on their worst 10 and five percent of flights recently. If flying Delta, a 30-minute delay allowance will still give you about 90 percent confidence of making a connection; but leave room for a delay of up to 70 minutes if making a connecting flight is absolutely critical.

United Airlines, the least-reliable major airline serving Winnipeg, should be given an even wider margin of error on its schedules. Based on its recent performance, allow for a 70-minute delay if you want 90 percent certainty of making a connecting flight; and for a 90-minute delay if you need 95 percent certainty.

Also beware of United’s tendency to sell unusually short connecting times between incoming international flights at its Chicago hub and onward flights to Canada, some connections being as short as 80 minutes. Your odds of making these connections are poor. All passengers arriving in the U.S., including those immediately continuing on to Canada, must go through full U.S. customs and immigration screening, which has been reported to take two to three hours on a busy day in Chicago due to U.S. government cost-cutting. After clearing U.S. border controls, you will need to re-check your bags, transfer from United’s international Terminal 5 to their domestic-and-Canada Terminal 2, go through security and make your way to the gate, which could easily add another hour or more. (And after all that fun, you’ll need to do the whole border clearance thing again two hours later here on return to Canada!)

Delta’s Minneapolis/St. Paul hub is said to work somewhat better; but even then a minimum connection time of three hours is recommended, not including delay allowances, if you arrive from outside of North America and connect onward to Canada.

If arriving in Canada from abroad at Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, budget at least 90 minutes for immigration, baggage delivery, customs, baggage re-check, security screening and boarding when coming back into the country, on top of the 30-to-45 minute delay buffers suggested above.

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Which airline is most likely to get you there on time?

Many people from around the world only became familiar with FlightRadar24.com after the Mar. 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, when many turned to the flight tracking site to trace the final route taken by the missing Boeing 777.

FlightRadar24 is, not surprisingly, a goldmine for aviation buffs, given features that include the ability to see what’s passing overhead right now and to even put yourself in the Captain’s seat. (Simply click on a flight, then on the 3D button on the left hand side.)

It also offers plenty of information for number-crunchers, such as data on the on-time performance of individual aircraft.

Normally, an airline’s on-time record is measured in simple percentage terms: the percentage of flights that arrived within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time. But that doesn’t tell you much about your chances of making a tight schedule work flawlessly.

So, I came up with something a bit different. I picked, at random, 31 individual airliners that fly under the colours of six airlines that serve Winnipeg: Air Canada, Air Transat, Delta, Sunwing, United and WestJet, including both mainline and connector services.

I then copied as much arrival and departure information as the site collected — a total of 897 take-offs and landings between Mar. 29 and April 6 — and pasted it into a spreadsheet. I then set out to estimate the normal “arrival window” you can expect to have if you were to fly any of the six airlines — the gap between the earliest 10 percent and latest 10 percent of arrivals, to give you an idea of what passes for normal at each airline.

If getting there on time is crucial — such as for an appointment or wedding, or to catch a connecting flight or a cruise ship — then Delta appears to be your safest bet, as the middle 80 percent of its flights arrived between 20 minutes early and just 15 minutes late. Among Canadian carriers, Air Canada bested WestJet by 14 minutes, but holiday carrier Air Transat seemed to do slightly better than both.

Airline on-time performance

Airlines that might best be avoided if getting there on-time is a concern include United, which had both some of the earliest but also the latest arriving flights, and Sunwing, which arrived anywhere from 21 minutes early to more than an hour and a half late on the middle 80 percent of its flights.

Sunwing’s on-time performance is probably less of a concern due to it being a charter airline and not a full-service network carrier. United’s scheduling problems are more likely to derail travel plans given that the carrier also tends to aggressively sell tight connections of less than 60 minutes at sprawling, congested hubs such as Newark Liberty and Chicago O’Hare. (That these airports are prone to aerial traffic jams and bad weather could explain United’s uneven performance.)

But if you have no crucial meetings to attend or connections to make, then it will probably suffice just to know the typical or “median” performance of each airline. In this case, all of the airlines come out smelling of roses: Delta was the most cautious scheduler, with the typical flight arriving nine minutes early, while Sunwing was the most optimistic scheduler, with the typical flight arriving six minutes late.

Based on:

224 Air Canada-branded flights operated by Embraer 190s C-FHKI and C-FHNY, Airbus A320 C-FKCR, Jazz Dash 8-300 C-GABP,  Dash 8-400 C-GGFP, Canadair RJ-700 C-GPJZ and Boeing 767 C-GSCA.

227 Delta-branded flights operated by Boeing 737s N3730B and N3750D, Embraer 170s N604CZ and N638CZ, CRJ-200 N8891A, and MD-88s N963DL and N982DL.

52 Air Transat flights operated by Airbus A330s C-GKTS, C-GTSO and C-GTSR.

133 United-branded flights operated by Boeing 737s N14735 and N36444, Embraer 145s N16147 and N16151, Airbus A320 N430UA, and CRJ-700 N705SK.

87 Sunwing flights operated by Boeing 737s C-FGVK, C-FTDW and G-FDZY.

174 WestJet and Encore flights operated by Dash 8 C-FHEN and Boeing 737s C-FRWA, C-FWCN, C-FXWJ and C-GLWS.

Note: Since FlightRadar24 records landing times, an average taxi time of five minutes was used to estimate gate arrival time.

Flying this Summer? How much connection time is enough?

Updated July 13. I learned that FlightAware has a bug that causes final approach or touchdown times to be recorded as gate arrival times. So, I revised my information using FlightStats.com, which uses gate arrival times. Changes are highlighted in coloured font.

As the school year ends here in Manitoba, many people are preparing to fly away on summer vacations across the country and around the world. While Winnipeg is linked by non-stop flights to all major Canadian cities between Vancouver and Montreal, and by regional jets to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver and Chicago, Winnipeggers have to catch a connecting flight to get almost anywhere else.

While most people choose their flights based on price and travel time, it’s important to remember that it won’t be the low fare or the speed with which you got to your destination that you’ll remember in the long run — it will be the fun (or miserable) time you had on your vacation.

A missed connection can push the needle strongly in the “miserable” direction — especially during the busy summer season, when flights might be booked solid for several days to come.

How much connection time is enough?

The airlines themselves are pulled in two opposite directions on this. It’s in their interest to get passengers, bags and planes to their destinations as timely as possible, but it’s also in their interest to have their flight come up at the top when a passenger sorts options by travel time on a third-party site like Expedia or TripAdvisor.

The result is a time that is rushed, but reasonable, provided that the inbound flight arrives on time.

Flights don’t always run on time, though. I went on FlightStats.com and picked out 179 random flights operated system-wide between July 5 and July 13 by Air Canada, WestJet, United and Delta and their regional partners.

WestJet had the most realistic schedule of all, with the 46 WestJet-branded flights arriving, on average, just three minutes later than scheduled.

Delta’s 40 flights were also fairly timely, with the average flight arriving four minutes behind schedule.

The Star Alliance was a little more tardy, with the 56 Air Canada-branded flights arriving, on average, 14 minutes behind schedule; and the 37 United-branded flights arriving, on average, 21 minutes late.*

All together, all but the worst 15 percent of the 179 flights examined arrived at their destinations within 31 minutes of their scheduled time, and all but the worst five percent arrived within 63 minutes of scheduled arrival time.

Therefore, consider the following prudent connection times if you’re traveling by air this summer:

Connection Type

Typical Airline Minimum Connection Times

Recommended Connection Time if a missed connection would be a . . .

 

Pain in the Arse

Total Catastrophe

Domestic

(e.g., Winnipeg-Halifax via Toronto and vice versa)

30-45 mins.

75-90 mins.

90 mins. to two hours

Winnipeg to the U.S. via Canada

(e.g., Winnipeg-Los Angeles via Calgary)

50-70 mins.

More than 90 mins.

Two hours or more

U.S. to Winnipeg via Canada

(e.g., Seattle-Vancouver-Winnipeg)

60-70 mins.

1.75 hours or more

More than two hours

Winnipeg to the U.S. via the U.S.

U.S. to Winnipeg via the U.S. 

(e.g., Winnipeg-New York and back, via Minneapolis) 

30-45 mins.

75-90 mins.

90 mins. to two hours

Winnipeg to International via Canada or the U.S.

(e.g., Winnipeg-Paris via either Montreal or Chicago)

40-75 mins.

2 hours or more

2.5 hours or more

International to Winnipeg via Canada or the U.S.

(e.g., London-Winnipeg via Toronto)

60-90 mins.

2 hours or more
(2.5 hours via Chicago)

2.5 hours or more
(3 hours via Chicago)

Note that these minimums only apply if you arrive at the connection airport with a boarding pass for your next flight, which shouldn’t be a problem if you booked all your flights at the same time.

Some people book two separate legs, however, such as Winnipeg to a European gateway city on a standard airline, and then from the gateway city to the final destination on a low-cost airline. Since neither airline will help you if there’s a missed connection, add at least a couple of hours to the recommended times above.

 

* – The median, or typical, delays were a little more flattering, though it should be cautioned that the sample of flights per airline was rather small. Delta was the most conservative scheduler, with the typical flight arriving nine minutes early. The typical United flight arrived one minute early, while the typical WestJet flight arrived two minutes late and the typical Air Canada flight arrived six minutes late. 

Back-to-Work Legislation: Once started, a difficult habit to break

The federal Conservative government hasn’t been shy about using back-to-work legislation to quell the possibility of strikes in the transportation industry, a sector that comes under the Canada Labour Code’s purview.

First, back-to-work legislation was applied to Air Canada, whose uncertain future was discussed on this blog two months ago. Now it’s CP Rail’s turn.

Back-to-work legislation might be something to be used more sparingly in the future, though, as it can turn into an open-ended invitation for a business to pass the buck to government, and can result in lower wages (and the resulting lower tax revenues).

So suggests a 2010 C. D. Howe Institute report, which reported that back-to-work legislation can end up with the government having to take responsibility for the private sector’s problems — the opposite of what many small-c conservative governments nominally stand for.

These results suggest that back-to-work legislation negatively affects the ability of labour and management to take responsibility for fashioning their own solutions to problems by increasing their reliance on third parties and postponing negotiations to the next round. If the two sides of the agreement know the [government] will make the hard decisions for them, they have no reason to do so themselves. Back-to-work legislation may be appealing as a way to resume public services, but its long-term consequences could be negative.

 Among those negative consequences: lower wages in the resulting settlement.

The net effect: real wage levels compared to otherwise similar contracts are lower after back-to-work legislation. Wage levels eventually decrease to 2.9 percent below otherwise similar contracts by the time of the next contract, making the total reduction in take-home pay significant.

Even averting a strike doesn’t necessarily prevent public inconvenience, as the report notes that back-to-work legislation can encourage “work-to-rule, illegal strikes, and slowdowns”.

Tough times loom for Air Canada

What was supposed to be a routine Thursday night trip home for thousands of Canadians turned into an ordeal late last week, as Air Canada flights landed at Toronto Airport and were then unable to unload their passengers because the airline staff who open the doors and unload the bags had gone on a wildcat strike.

Those following on Twitter witnessed the drama live, as passengers turned on their wireless devices and began describing what was going on around them.

“Landed! An hour delayed not bad. Not like others who were delayed 5 hours or more,” CTV Toronto reporter Naomi Parness wrote on her Twitter account.

“Passengers just answered the phone at D36 since #AirCanada crew are absent,” passenger Lois Miller tweeted from a departure gate.

The wildcat strike culminated one of Air Canada’s most hellish weeks in years, coming seven days after Parliament passed a controversial bill meant to avert a strike at the nation’s largest airline. It also came four days after Aveos, formerly known as Air Canada Technical Services, abruptly went out of business, leaving several of Air Canada’s jets inoperable.

The incident that reportedly caused the strike: the suspension of several employees who sarcastically slow-clapped and called out mockingly to federal labour minister Lisa Raitt as she walked through Toronto Airport on Thursday. Raitt had guided the legislation through Parliament the preceding week which prevented airline workers from going on strike.

The legislation might not have been as helpful to Air Canada as it initially appeared.

The strike was “a direct result of the frustration the workers are feeling as a result of the government intervention in the free collective-bargaining process,” George Smith, Air Canada’s former employee relations director, told a reporter on Friday, adding that “it may harm the union’s agenda and certainly gives rise to people, who are anti-union to begin with, to say: ‘Just look what happens.'”

Indeed, the strike led some commentators to call for the disbanding of the airline’s unions and for foreign airlines to be allowed to fly domestic routes within Canada.

Others asked why Air Canada can’t be more like non-unionized WestJet, which has had little in the way of labour troubles.

Aside from the unionization issue, two huge barriers stand in the way of Air Canada becoming more like WestJet.

The first is that Air Canada lacks outside enemies — or at least any that employees and management can agree upon.

Yes, WestJet is taking market share away from Air Canada, but Air Canada employees are generally indifferent to or even respectful of WestJet’s accomplishments over the past 16 years.

Instead, many Air Canada employees see their own company’s management as the most ominous threat to their interests.

This sentiment can be seen in the comments left by Air Canada employees on RateMyEmployer.ca, a web site that encourages users to anonymously offer advice or warnings to would-be co-workers.

“I am a pilot at Air Canada. I love to fly, and it’s great when we’re ‘off campus’ on the other side of the world,” one commentator wrote. “The only time it is miserable is when you have to deal with management.”

“The worst managed company, just a bunch of greedy, money hungry bottem feeders trying to suck the very lifeblood out of us. Other then that, great guys to work for,” the unnamed pilot continued.

“Get out of there as soon as you can,” an anonymous former management employee advised those still working for the airline. “It is not worth the stress and things won’t get better no matter how long you wait. There is a much better world out of that place.”

“Horrible company, glad that I am laid off and can finally get on with my life,” a former Air Canada employee wrote. “Poisonous atmosphere, not organized at all, high stress, no feedback or direction from management.”

The last comment raises a disturbing question: Do employees feel trapped inside a company that is descending into corporate civil war, terrified on one hand of losing their income during a recession, yet not entirely averse to a catastrophe that would at least set them free to get on with their lives?

That brings us to the second barrier to Air Canada becoming more like WestJet: Air Canada employees are vulnerable to feeling trapped by their seniority.

Take a pilot or flight attendant as an example. Once hired by Air Canada, the new crew member starts at the bottom of the seniority list. The pay is poor, and the work schedule is unpredictable due to new hires being assigned to “reserve duty”, which means being on call to replace a more senior employee who can’t make a flight.

After several years, the hours and the pay start to get better.

But what do you do if you tire of the job at age 50?

By that age, a career change carries a heavier financial penalty than it would at ages 40 or 45, when there are still 20 years or more to fully recover prior to retirement.

The disgruntled employee could always go apply for a job at WestJet or Porter — and start over as a new hire, which is hardly a desirable thought.

In theory, the “seniority trap” should make for a pliant workforce. In practice, this trap is akin to outlawing divorce, allowing faltering or even abusive relationships to continue for too long after the love, trust or respect have run out.

Based on the reviews at RateMyEmployer.ca, WestJet appears to be going through morale problems of its own as it ages and no longer feels as threatened by Air Canada as it did in its early days, when WestJet’s survival seemed less certain.

WestJet employees, however, tend to be younger and are freer to walk away from the airline if things go sour. If the old saying that “the best social program is a job” is true, then the best promoter of workplace harmony is having another job to replace the existing one with.

Air Canada, in short, is as trapped as some of its employees. With no common enemy to unite staff and management, and too few escape routes from an increasingly toxic work environment, the country’s largest airline will struggle to prevent its internal turmoil from translating into dissatisfied customers who take their business to the competition. It may very well fail to do so.


Now, if that just put you in a gloomy mood, here are a couple of YouTube finds that will cheer you up a little. The first is a particularly good compilation of TV news outtakes from various U.S. TV stations.

And finally, a call to Dorothy Dobbie’s gardening talk show on CJOB 680 that takes an unexpectedly hilarious turn. Have a listen.

Did Carlton St. shooting prompt Air Canada to remove crews from downtown Winnipeg?

An interesting post from “Longhauler”, seemingly an Air Canada crew member, on the Airliners.net Civil Aviation discussion forum. The shooting he is likely referring to is the Sept. 19th shooting on Carlton Street, about 350 metres from the Radisson Hotel.

Air Canada recently announced that its crews would no longer be staying at the hotel for security reasons.

No this decision came from the Corporate Security department of the airline. This large department is always doing “risk assessment” everywhere Air Canada flies. Not just for aircrew safety when away from base, but also for passengers and aircraft.

 For example, a few years back, there was concern about Tel Aviv. As a result, aircraft and crew were laying over in Cyprus, then shuttling back and forth to pick up and drop off passengers. These types of risk assessments are continually done everywhere worldwide Air Canada flies.

 In the case of Winnipeg, if I understand correctly, the final straw was a murder in the parking lot of the hotel during daylight hours. Combined with continued concern from police reports, the risk was considered too high.

Thus, the decision to pull crews from downtown Winnipeg likely wasn’t driven by the availability of a better deal at the Sandman Hotel or to make some kind of point on the eve of a provincial election — just by the desire to protect the airline from lawsuits and operational problems.

Love or hate Air Canada’s crews and onboard service, you have to at least applaud their safety-first mindset, without which the airline wouldn’t have gone 28 years without a fatal accident. (The most recent fatal accident: the June 2, 1983 DC-9 fire in Cincinnati.)

* – See also Jean Leloup’s thoughtful post on Winnipeg’s pros and cons from a Calgarian’s point of view.

Airline industry grows up

One day in 1958, someone in the sales department of SAS, the state airline jointly owned by the governments of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, came up with what he thought would be a clever line to attract more high-fare business travelers to the airline.

“On our planes you won’t find rubbery indigestibles wrapped in cellophane,” the unknown author wrote in reference to SAS’s supposedly tastier sandwiches in a sales letter to prospective clients.

Eventually a copy of the letter ended up in the hands of Trans World Airlines (TWA), a major U.S.-based competitor of SAS’s on the North Atlantic routes — and it was SAS that ended up with a very expensive case of indigestion.

Trans World complained to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global regulatory body for the world’s airlines, about SAS’s boastful letter. IATA regulated not just where airlines could fly to and how much they could charge; they even regulated in-flight service.

The dispute between SAS and TWA, and complaints from Pan American about the large sandwiches being served by four of its European rivals, are now remembered as the “Great Sandwich War” — and still sometimes recalled by historians as one of the absurdities of the airline industry’s pre-deregulation era.

The result was a two-day IATA conference in London that deemed that member airlines’ Economy Class sandwiches must be cold, made largely of bread, unadorned, self-contained and not filled with anything too fancy, such as lobster or caviar.

And SAS, was slapped with a $20,000 fine for slurring its competitors — equivalent to more than $150,000 in 2010 dollars.

It was TWA’s turn to be the aggressor in the 1965 Movie War, when other airlines complained that the U.S. airline’s expensive new in-flight movie system gave it an unfair advantage. After a short ban on movies, the dispute was resolved in 1966 when IATA ruled that in-flight movies were acceptable as long as passengers had to pay $2.50 U.S. (equivalent to nearly $17 today) to rent the required headsets.

The industry’s childish antics would continue for more than a decade more. By the late ’70s, however, it was time for a change.

Governments that had been flush with cash during the post-war booms of the ’50s and ’60s found themselves forced on to austerity budgets in the ’70s by weak economic growth and soaring inflation. The cash infusions required to help government-owned airlines replace the Boeing 707s and DC-8s that were nearing the end of their service lives, and to subsidize unprofitable routes for political reasons, were unwelcome expenses that governments were eager to be rid of.

On top of that, the public was clamouring for lower fares.

That set the stage for governments to get out of the airline business by deregulating the industry, privatizing government-owned airlines and signing “open skies” treaties with other governments. Once the U.S. deregulated its airline industry in 1978, it was only a matter of time before Canada followed course — which we did in the ’80s.

That set loose a 30-year hurricane of changes — mergers, fare wars, start-ups, bankruptcies, new job opportunities at some times and massive layoffs at others.

The toll could be seen by looking at the names of the airlines that served Winnipeg in 1978, the year that deregulation began in the U.S.: Air Canada, CP Air, Transair, Wardair, North Central Airlines, Northwest Orient and Frontier Airlines.

By 1990, all but Air Canada and Northwest had disappeared through merger or bankruptcy.

There were years of chaos left to go. Various newly formed airlines came and went at Winnipeg International Airport throughout the ’90s and 2000s: Royal Airlines, Greyhound Air, Vistajet, Canada 3000, Jetsgo and Zoom, just to name a few.

Fifteen years ago this month, on Feb. 29, 1996, a quirky Calgary-based startup called WestJet took to the skies over Winnipeg for the first time. Many (myself included) figured that it too would eventually fall victim to industry carnage.

Despite a rocky start, WestJet proved us doubters wrong through a combination of skillful management and good luck. By 2010, it was approximately the same size as the former Canadian Airlines International in terms of the number of passenger-miles flown and the size of its fleet.

As WestJet’s 15th anniversary approaches, a strange sense of normalcy has settled in at Winnipeg Airport.

WestJet itself has shed many of the quirky attributes of its early days, such as the singing flight attendants and the pass-the-toilet-paper-roll games, though the flight attendants’ name tags still have smiley faces on them. Now it does more “middle-aged airline” things, such as signing interline and code-sharing agreements with Delta and Air France. (Will membership in the SkyTeam alliance be next?)

Air Canada will always get its share of barbs as the country’s biggest airline. But it is a profitable airline, as its 2010 net income of $107 million suggests, and has had some success in convincing U.S. travelers to connect through Canada instead of through U.S. hubs on their way to international destinations, as the Winnipeg Free Press reported a few days ago.

And despite ongoing economic trouble in the U.S., both Delta and United-Continental announced today that they were profitable in 2010 and would be paying out profit-sharing bonuses to their employees.

After 30 years of post-deregulation turmoil, which followed 30 years of pre-deregulation bunfights over trivial issues like sandwich toppings, the airline industry seems to have finally found some degree of stability. It has finally grown up.

The trick now will be to make the stability last.

Was airline deregulation good or bad in your opinion? Share your thoughts below.


On a different note, most of us born-and-bred Manitobans were quite pleased to see headlines such as “Warm weekend weather” in the Winnipeg Sun and “A few more days of warmer weather in store‎” in the Winnipeg Free Press. But our pleasant mid-winter respite from the usual brutal cold can be a newcomer’s shocking introduction to what we consider “warm” around here, as I learned this weekend.

Please tell me they are joking when they say this is a warm day in Winnipeg,” a friendly recent newcomer from the U.K. begged me this weekend. I reassured him that it wasn’t actually warm, but still very mild for this time of year, hoping that it would ease his shock at learning that what would be called “extreme cold” in his homeland is sometimes called “warm” here.

So, if there are any meteorologists or other weatherpeople reading this, now you know: be careful how you use the word “warm” at this time of year, as it’s giving some of our new neighbours from abroad a dreadful fright.