So, how much would it cost to get more nonstops from Winnipeg Airport?

Europe's Ryanair is known for its low fares, its frugality, and its strange sense of humour.

Europe’s Ryanair is known for its low fares, its frugality, and its strange sense of humour. (Click for source)

Calling for more airlines and cheaper fares at Winnipeg’s James Richardson International Airport is a favourite preoccupation of Winnipeggers. So much so that one mayoral candidate a few days ago pledged to work, if he is elected, to bring a true discount airline to the city — though even he personally was unsure how this could be done.

But airlines are no longer a political tool as they were in the days when many were government-owned, but now for-profit enterprises engaged in, as former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall once put it, “a nasty, rotten business”. If they are to start service to a city, they will want reassurance that the new route stands favourable odds of being profitable.

This means more than just having people show up for flights. Not all passengers are created equal: the business traveler in seat 23A who paid $800 for a last-minute round trip to Toronto is certainly more valuable to the airline than the holidaymaker next to her in seat 23B who booked well in advance and paid just $500 for the same round-trip.

Thus, the more seats that are likely to be filled by the $800 passengers, the more impressed an airline will be with a city’s potential. Revenue, not just headcount, is critical to a route’s survival.

How much revenue does a flight need to break even? One rough way of estimating this is to look for a key figure in the airlines’ annual reports or news releases: cost per available seat mile (CASM) or, in the metrically minded countries, cost per available seat kilometre (CASK).

This can be as little as eight cents per seat per mile for an ultra low-cost airline like Europe’s Ryanair, which crams the seats in tight and has even mused about installing pay toilets on its fleet, or as high as 23 cents on Swiss, which tends to be a little more generous with passengers and actually uses well-paid Swiss-resident crews. (This is significant: Norwegian, an international low-cost airline, has faced criticism on both sides of the Atlantic for hiring American and Asian crew members because this is cheaper than hiring actual Norwegians.)

Multiply the cost per seat mile figure by the number of seats on the smallest aircraft capable of doing the job — sorry, but you can’t fly a Regional Jet from Canada to France — and the number of miles to the destination of choice, and you have a rough estimate of the minimum revenue each flight will need to bring in to be considered worth operating.

In Winnipeg’s case, the least demanding route to aim for would be a 50-seat American Envoy regional jet service to the American Airlines/Oneworld hub in Chicago. With operating costs averaging out to about 17 cents per seat-mile, American’s regional feeder service could be considered a break-even proposition at about $6,200 in revenue per flight. (This would include fares, ancillary revenues and cargo, but exclude taxes and surcharges collected from passengers.)

With impressively low costs in the nine cent per seat mile range, Delta Connection would also be able to break even at relatively low revenues on, for example, a flight to Delta’s New York JFK hub. (This would draw business away from Delta’s own Minneapolis/St. Paul hub, however, so the airline might not be keen on such a route.)

Air Service Costs 1

At the high end of the scale, long-haul flights have the highest revenue hurdles to get over. Icelandair, with costs equal to 17 cents per seat mile, would need reassurance that each flight would earn $87,000 in revenues to justify the Winnipeg-to-Iceland Boeing 757 flight that has been talked about for years.

And we can probably rule out Virgin Atlantic ever starting wide-body service between Winnipeg and London: with 314 seats to fill for 3,943 miles at 15 cents per mile, each flight would have to pull in nearly $186,000 in revenue to be considered worthwhile.

Longer flights not surprisingly require higher average revenues per passenger to break even. Even if a “dirt cheap” carrier such as Spirit Airlines — with low costs of about 11 cents per seat-mile — were to hypothetically start a 1,880-mile Winnipeg-Fort Lauderdale service using its 145-seat Airbus A319s, revenues on a fully loaded flight would need to average out to $207 per passenger each way to break even.

Air Service Costs 2

 

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Is another airport poaching your passengers? Don’t get mad — get even!

“Prairie people love to escape the winter for a while, but despite having some of the finest airport facilities in the world, thousands of folks who live in Manitoba and Saskatchewan would rather drive 3 or 4 hours to Grand Forks or Minot to make their escape,” veteran Winnipeg broadcaster Roger Currie wrote on the ChrisD.ca current affairs site on May 4.

“Airport managers in Winnipeg and Regina call it leakage, but it seems it’s becoming more of a flood is it not? In the past 12 months, close to a quarter of a million Manitobans, and a similar number from Saskatchewan, have made that long drive rather than catching a flight at home,” Currie continued, lamenting the relatively high taxes and fees levied on passengers boarding in Canada (where the air transport system largely operates on a user-pay basis, and most major airports have been long since privatized) compared to those levied on U.S. airport users (where the system is still largely government-owned and funded, although some surcharges have been added in recent years).

It’s a concern shared by the Winnipeg Airports Authority, which is lobbying the federal government for relief on rents that airports must continue to pay and on security surcharges that are paid directly by travellers. Their goal is to encourage more of those quarter-million Canadians catching their flights at nearby U.S. airports to depart from this side of the border instead.

Nevertheless, to be able to fly Allegiant Air, a U.S. low-cost low-frequency holiday airline, from Grand Forks, N.D. to Orlando, Fla. for $265.50 (U.S.) per person round-trip, or from Fargo, N.D. to Los Angeles for $322, sounds far more attractive than paying roughly $500 Cdn. to make the same round-trip from Winnipeg.

For a family of four or more, the savings to be had from driving to North Dakota to catch one of Allegiant’s flights — and of tolerating Allegiant’s tight seating and limited choice of departure and return dates — can add up to the hundreds of dollars.

But here’s where Winnipeg’s James Richardson International Airport can avenge itself: by promoting itself to North Dakotans and Minnesotans as the place to consider for a lower fare  when traveling further afield or when needing a wider choice of departure and return dates.

As the table below shows, Fargo, N.D.’s Hector Field tends to be the region’s lower-fare leader for flights to various popular U.S. destinations, thanks to five-way competition between Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier and United, based on the lowest published fares listed on Google Flights* as of Friday evening, May 9 — although once in a while you might be able to get a better deal yet from the often-overlooked Bemidji Airport, where prices otherwise reflect Delta’s monopoly.

But for North Dakotans and Minnesotans going further afield, significant savings can be had by flying to and from Winnipeg, where competition for long-haul passengers is more intense. For instance, the lowest round-trip fare to London was $229 Cdn. ($210 U.S.) per person cheaper departing from Winnipeg than departing from Fargo — and that pales in comparison to the $463 Cdn. ($425 U.S.) advantage that Winnipeg had over Fargo on flights to Honolulu,  and the $808 Cdn. ($741 U.S.) gap in Winnipeg’s favour on flights to Tokyo.

Lowest published fares, in Canadian dollars, for selected dates from Bemidji, Fargo, Grand Forks and Winnipeg airports, as listed on Google Flights on the evening of May 9, 2014. To convert to U.S. dollars, multiply by  0.917. (Click to enlarge.)

Lowest published fares, in Canadian dollars, for selected dates from Bemidji, Fargo, Grand Forks and Winnipeg airports, as listed on Google Flights on the evening of May 9, 2014. To convert to U.S. dollars, multiply by 0.917. (Click to enlarge.)

Still feeling over-charged for air travel? Consider this New York Times post published yesterday, noting that even despite a heavy increase in fees and a general rise in fares over the past few years, the cost of flying in the U.S. (in 2013 dollars) has fallen from an average of 31 cents per mile in 1979 to just 16 cents in 2013.

 

* – Tip: To search multiple airports simultaneously in Google Flights, enter the airport codes separated by commas. For example, if you’re searching for the lowest fare to Southern California in general from Winnipeg, Grand Forks or Fargo, enter YWG, GFK, FAR as your origin and LAX, SNA, ONT, LGB (and perhaps SAN, PSP, BUR or SBA) as your destination.

New terminal should mean opportunities for new routes, but to where?

A famous saying in the U.S. South goes, “to get to heaven or hell, you have to go through Atlanta”, a quote that reflects the dominance that Delta Air Lines’s huge global hub has over not just Georgia, but also its neighbouring states.

Though Winnipeg is a long way from the Deep South, the need to connect to get to anywhere beyond Vancouver, Montreal, Chicago or Denver remains a long-standing grievance in this city.

What are our prospects of getting a wider selection of flights at Winnipeg Airport? Offhand, there seems to be slim pickings.

As USA Today noted this week, airlines are turning their attention away from domestic markets, which offer thin profit margins and diminishing growth opportunities, in favour of foreign markets where demand is growing. Here in Canada, Air Canada has also made a major project out of turning Toronto into a major hub for business travelers in transit between Canada, the U.S., Europe and Asia.

International flights, however, need domestic connecting traffic. It is there that there might yet be hope of attracting additional service to Winnipeg, especially since we have a new terminal with additional gate capacity at peak travel times.

The following is a closer look at some of the scheduled airlines that might be approached at some point about the possibility of flying to Winnipeg, and what opportunities and challenges that might pose for them.

The best hope seems to be for the restoration of something more than a nominal Oneworld alliance link to Winnipeg, or an additional Delta route to compete more effectively with Air Canada and United on Canada-Latin America routes.

Airlines1

Airlines2

Inside the New YWG

We were supposed to be passengers — but we acted like tourists.

I had the good fortune recently to receive an invitation to be one of more than 1,000 Winnipeggers to participate in Saturday’s dress rehearsal for the opening of the new Winnipeg airport terminal. After checking in on the lower level, I waited anxiously for my group — Wave 8, denoted by our blue folders — to be escorted into the new terminal building to assume our randomly assigned mock identities. My job was to play the role of “Pam McDavidtest”, departing for Thunder Bay on WestJet 4855 and returning on a flight from Toronto.

YWG check-in area

First stop was at the WestJet check-in kiosk to collect my boarding pass. Even though I’m usually fairly proficient with a check-in kiosk, a WestJet agent helped me with the task, clearly having as much fun as I was.

Unlike the old Winnipeg airport terminal, where each airline had dedicated desk space, the new terminal appears to offer much more flexibility to reassign counters from one airline to another as needs change, as indicated by the monitors above each check-in station. At the same time, each kiosk can be used to check in for any of the four major airlines serving Winnipeg — Air Canada, WestJet, Delta or United.

A couple of things stand out about this area. First, the washrooms are not particularly easy to find, as they are concealed behind the check-in counters and located at the far end of the hall. Second, Winnipeg has clearly learned from other airports the importance of placing the bulk of restaurants and amenities in the secure area of the airport (à la  Minneapolis/St. Paul). This will avoid the common complaint heard about many other airports of there being little in the way of food or beverage options post-security.

YWG post-security

After checking in, it’s time to head off to the left and go through security. The security machines haven’t been set up yet, so the real test of how well the system works will be when the terminal opens for real on Oct. 30.

After clearing security, the one thing missing (or perhaps just not installed yet) are departure monitors if you want to reconfirm your flight’s gate or departure status. Turn left toward Gate 7 and check the monitors near there if you need to. Or if you need to put your belt back on and refill your pockets, there’s a little lounge area  you can retreat to, out of the way of other passengers.

YWG Gate 8

YWG Gate 9 area

Here we are — checked in, cleared through security and now at the gate. At the old Winnipeg airport, you almost expected to run into Dracula from time to time thanks to the ’60s-style Brutalist architecture which kept outside light to a minimum. By contrast, the new terminal has floor to ceiling windows, allowing in plenty of natural light.

Departure area amenities include a convenience store, a T.G.I. Friday’s, a Gondola Pizza and a Tim Horton’s outlet near Gate 9.

The carpeted floors might be a bit of a challenge over time, as carpets need more intensive maintenance to keep in good condition and to prevent bubbles from forming in places where the underlying glue has become ineffective.

One thing I was glad to see was that the departure lounge wasn’t littered with blaring TV sets. This will be a welcome change from the usual noise-polluted airport experience, and is reminiscent of the “quiet airport” policy enforced by some New Zealand airports.

YWG washroom

Let’s take a quick look at the washroom while we’re here. No sign here of any mischievous family-values politicians giving new meaning to the phrase “making a connection”.

YWG U.S. pre-clearance area

Let’s backtrack to the other end of the terminal, where we find a boarding area equipped with movable glass walls. Based on the closed corridor separating arriving and departing passengers, it appears as though this will be the boarding area for flights departing to the U.S. Like many other major Canadian airports, Winnipeg offers U.S. Customs and Border Patrol pre-clearance, permitting most flights from Canada to arrive at domestic gates in the U.S., freeing up the scarcer supply of international gates for other aircraft.

YWG baggage claim area

Alright, let’s go down to the baggage claim area with its distinctive polka-dot lights. Very nice indeed.

At about this point, I threw caution to the wind and slipped past a “Do Not Enter” sign and found myself in the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) secondary inspection area. A few of us checked out the inspection desks and the tiny interrogation rooms where you’ll end up if your inspection goes really badly.  But I don’t have any pictures to show you, unfortunately, as a CBSA officer walked in and pleasantly asked that we refrain from taking pictures in that particular area, even though it’s still very much under construction.

Though I’ll be the first to admit that the relationship between CBSA and the travelling public has been strained at times from both parties’ point of view, I still adhere to the idea that Rule #1 for any traveler should be Don’t screw around with Customs and Immigration. So, no photo.

YWG arrivals level exit

Finally, it’s time to leave the terminal via the lower-level Arrivals hall. Hotel shuttle pickups are just outside the door — but there’s no sign yet of where Winnipeg Transit buses will stop. (Or will that be upstairs, at the departures level?)

Overall, an attractive and easy-to-navigate new terminal that will give travelers much of what they’ve come to expect from an airport.

Winnipeg/Grand Forks airport battle less important than it looks

Steep American Airlines take-off, 1986

Luggage in the bins will sure as hell have shifted during this steep 1986 departure from Washington, D.C. (© Robert M. Campbell/Airliners.net)

There’s been much ado recently about the growing numbers of Winnipeg travelers who are making the 240-kilometre trip to Grand Forks International Airport to catch their flights because of the lower fares available from south of the border.

Who can blame them? Some of the deals from Grand Forks are quite attractive. Avoid the sneaky Airport Shuttle add-on, and you can fly from Grand Forks to Las Vegas for the Victoria Day long weekend on Allegiant Air — if you’re able to make a Thursday departure and Sunday return — for a base fare of $401.

If you’re looking for a Friday night departure/Monday return, you can pay a bit more to take United from Fargo ($429) or Delta from Grand Forks ($486),  Bemidji ($509) or Thief River Falls ($616) and still pay less than the best currently available fare from Winnipeg for those dates and times ($727 on Delta).

Is this competition from south of the border hurting Winnipeg Airport?

Yes, says the Winnipeg Airports Authority. Winnipeggers boarding their flights in Grand Forks instead of Winnipeg make it more difficult for Winnipeg Airport to attract new carriers and maintain direct flight options, they told the Free Press recently.

Yet, research from Europe suggests that such competition from low-cost carriers and secondary airports “[generates] additional travel, rather than merely substituting for flights with legacy carriers”, while research of the U.S. market by a Japanese researcher concludes that “the gain in social welfare due to [low-cost carriers entering markets] is substantial” as a result of the benefits to consumers and the profits generated by these airlines.

Research from Monash University in Australia also concluded that “competition [between airports] can lead to better allocation of traffic to airports, and to pressure on inefficient airports to perform better”, though cautioning that “inefficiencies in allocation of traffic can come about when prices do not reflect costs, when major airports set prices above marginal costs to recover costs, or when prices at secondary airports are kept low by subsidies.”

And, as The Cranky Flier, one of the web’s top aviation-related blogs, pointed out in February, more distant airports are only competitive on certain longer routes:

“Those who are traveling on shorter flights are less willing to drive to airports that are further away. So people that live in the heavily-populated area around Long Beach will drive to LAX if they’re going to New York, but they’re less likely to do it if it’s just a jaunt to Vegas or San Francisco… Low fares are good, but it’s the convenience of the airport that makes it work best.”

Thus, Winnipeg’s airport is unlikely to suffer much harm from a little healthy competition from Grand Forks. For the business travelers who keep the traditional airlines in business, it will always be more convenient to use an airport a mere 20 minutes from downtown Winnipeg than one located three hours away.

The benefits to consumers and the effect of low-cost carriers in opening up travel to those who otherwise wouldn’t bother traveling at all are also important to keep in mind.

A bit of cross-border competition — Winnipeg vs. Grand Forks, Vancouver vs. Bellingham, Montreal vs. Plattsburgh and Toronto vs. Buffalo — could also open the door to a reconsideration of how the infrastructure that supports air travel is paid for in both Canada and the United States, though there are no easy solutions there: Do we stick with the status quo of requiring the airlines to collect a variety of surcharges over which they have no control, but take the flak for? Do we abandon the user-pay principle and revert to direct government ownership and taxpayer subsidy of airports, as is the case in much of the U.S.? Do we adopt the model recently abandoned by New Zealand, where international passengers had to line up to pay a separate “admission fee” before going through passport control and security?

So, shop around. And if you can get a better deal out of Grand Forks, go for it.

Three sites that could make your summertime air travel less of a pain

Copyright © Macchupicchu-Inca.com

It was all smiles at Winnipeg’s James Richardson International Airport as Iceland Express’s first flight to Winnipeg landed in early June. For a non-North American carrier to start scheduled service to a medium-sized midwestern market like Winnipeg is almost unheard of, and many Winnipeggers were captivated by promotional fares offering the promise of a trip to Europe for less than $1,000 round-trip.

In less than a month, however, the “old-fashioned” way of getting from Winnipeg to Europe — paying a network carrier $1,000 and up and making connections in Toronto, Montreal, Chicago or the Twin Cities — would start to look good again.

This change came as passengers learned the hard way that the cheapest flight is sometimes the worst bargain of all.

On June 25, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that Iceland Express’s twice-weekly Winnipeg flights had been plagued by cancellations due to “weak ticket sales”. Five days later, CBC Manitoba reported that passengers’ holiday plans were being reorganized as Iceland Express reduced Winnipeg service to just one flight per week with plans to suspend service entirely in September before re-launching the Winnipeg-Iceland link again next year.

Could passengers have avoided the headaches? The answer is yes.

Even before Iceland Express’s arrival in Winnipeg last month — even before the Iceland volcano caused travel havoc in Europe — there were warning signs that Iceland Express was an airline with severe reliability problems, flying as it were on a wing and a prayer.

Skytrax, a popular beefs-and-bouquets site for air travelers, has documented a series of trip reports that show that the problems experienced by Winnipeg travelers — canceled flights and no one being available to help make alternate arrangements — are nothing new.

Skytrax is the first site that could help passengers avoid air travel headaches. Along with raves about in-flight entertainment systems and rants about delays, the site is also filled with anecdotal information about airline reliability, baggage charges, whether or not you’ll get a large enough meal to keep hunger at bay on an overseas flight, and even on which airports you should aim for and which ones you should avoid when making a connection.

In addition to Iceland Express, Skytrax also has reviews on Air Canada, CanJet, Delta, Sunwing, United and WestJet as well as their codeshare partners.

The second site worth checking out is a unique search engine called Inside Trip. While most search engines focus on price, departure time and trip duration — the three things people tend to look at first when making a reservation — Inside Trip adds what it calls “flight quality” to the mix. Thus, a flight with roomier seats and a good on-time departure record will be ranked higher than a flight with more cramped seating and a spotty on-time record.  You can customize this search engine to include those amenities that mean a lot to you and exclude those that count for nothing.

The third useful site is Flight Stats. If it’s vital that you arrive at your destination on time or make a connection, Flight Stats allows you to compare the on-time record of multiple flights on a given route, as this examination of the Winnipeg-Toronto route shows. This site could also have tipped off travelers to Iceland Express’s reliability problems, as shown in this overview of the airline’s historical operating statistics. (Even if you make allowances for the disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano, it still suggests that passengers should leave time in their schedules for long delays.)

Now that you have these three tools at your disposal, your outlook for a (relatively) problem-free flight this summer has just improved considerably. Happy traveling!

Boeing’s “Dreamliner” could mean fewer connections for Winnipeg travelers

Aviation enthusiasts were abuzz Tuesday as the Boeing 787 lifted off on its first test flight. The new widebody jetliner — which must still undergo extensive testing before it enters into service — is designed to make travel a little less stressful for long-haul travelers by allowing them to bypass much-hated hubs like Los Angeles and London Heathrow, and by offering more non-stop overseas flights from secondary markets.

For example, let’s say you want to take a trip to Australia, arriving in Sydney and leaving from Melbourne. Getting a flight into Sydney is easy enough: Air Canada, United and Delta can all get you there from Winnipeg without having to switch airlines en route.

Getting back from Melbourne or any other Aussie city, however, is a little more tricky: only United can get you back to Winnipeg on a single reservation, and even that requires a stop in Sydney and connections in L.A. and Denver along the way.

Worse yet, United usually uses older Boeing 747s out of Melbourne, which are some of their most unpopular planes with frequent fliers.

The answer would be for an airline like Qantas, Air Canada or upstart V Australia to fly non-stop from Melbourne to Vancouver, and then allow you to carry on to Winnipeg.

Right now, that’s not viable. Larger jets like the Boeing 747 and 777 have too many seats to fill to make a Vancouver-Melbourne flight profitable, and smaller widebodies like the Boeing 767 and the Airbus A330 lack the fuel capacity to fly the entire trip non-stop.

That will change when the Boeing 787 — nicknamed “The Dreamliner” — enters service. The newest Boeing will allow airlines to offer their passengers more direct routings that bypass the big international hubs.

When the Boeing 787 enters service, there’s a good chance that Melbourne will be one of the cities that you’ll be able to fly to from Winnipeg with only one change of planes en route — a move that will not only take some of the stress out of air travel, but save vacationers, expatriates and business travelers a few hours of travel time as well.

Other possibilities include Singapore, Jakarta (a potential future Asian business capital), Cape Town and Bangalore (one of India’s largest cities outside of Mumbai and New Delhi).

How the 787 might change how Winnipeggers travel

How the 787 might change how Winnipeggers travel (* - Source: Expedia; ** - Estimate based on 500 mph ground speed westbound or 550 mph eastbound, plus 30 mins. taxi time and a 2-hour connection in Toronto/Vancouver)

 

Possible YVR 787 Routes

Routes that might be added to/from Vancouver when the 787 enters service. (Image © Great Circle Mapper -- gc.kls2.com)

 

Possible YYZ 787 Routes

Routes that might be added to/from Toronto when the Boeing 787 enters service (Image © Great Circle Mapper -- gc.kls2.com)

Air Canada has ordered 37 Boeing 787s with options for 23 more, so the aircraft will eventually be used on flights to and from Canada. Other airlines, such as Australia’s Qantas, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines could conceivably also start flights to/from Canada using the aircraft. (WestJet has not placed any orders for the 787, and probably has no plans to do so.)

Don’t hold your breath waiting to see Boeing 787 service to or from Winnipeg though, as the local market is a little too small to support the regularly scheduled long-haul services for which the 787 was designed.