Canada

Canada's small airlines are disappearing into WestJet. What does that mean for travellers?

Some people are questioning the future of air travel in Canada after WestJet confirmed this weekend that it’s planning to wind down Sunwing Airlines. Here’s what some experts think WestJet’s moves could mean for travellers, and the airline industry in Canada.

Fewer airlines could mean less choice — but it could also mean better service, experts say

Airplanes parked at an airport.
WestJet is planning to integrate low-cost carrier Sunwing into its mainline business within two years as part of a plan to streamline operations. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Some people are questioning the future of air travel in Canada after WestJet confirmed this weekend that it's planning to wind down Sunwing Airlines. The news comes on the heels of the airline's decision to fold its budget subsidiary Swoop into its main operation.

Here's what some experts think WestJet's moves could mean.

What does WestJet's move mean for travellers?

It depends who you ask, and what you value as an airline passenger, such as value, flight selection, comfort and security.

WestJet's move could lead the airline to reduce its costs and increase its prices, said John Gradek, a professor with McGill University's aviation management program.

"There is going to be consolidation. Consumers will have less choice, and consumers will pay more," he told CBC News.

WATCH | WestJet says it will absorb Sunwing's routes: 

WestJet to shutter Sunwing, absorb its routes

11 months ago
Duration 1:55
WestJet plans to shut down Sunwing Airlines after taking over the no frills carrier, leaving Canadians with one less low-cost travel option. Some industry experts are warning the decision will only drive up air fares.

That said, there could be benefits for travellers, too, according to Lesley Keyter, a travel agent in Calgary who's known as the Travel Lady. WestJet will integrate Sunwing's aircraft under its licence, giving it a bigger fleet and more pilots.

"I think if they've got this big strong fleet of aircraft available that they can move around, I think this will be better for the consumer and will be more seamless," Keyter said. 

That could help in situations like the one Sunwing ran into last winter, when hundreds of Canadians wound up stranded in Mexico for days as the airline struggled to move its limited planes and crew to different airports amid winter weather. 

But isn't having more choice better?

As discount airlines such as Swoop and Sunwing disappear into bigger ones like WestJet, it might seem like travellers have fewer options.

But the move may also allow WestJet to offer its customers more choice, such as travel packages at different price points and comfort levels, Keyter said.

An airplane flies over clouds.
Hundreds of Canadians were stranded in Mexico last winter after their Sunwing flights were cancelled. (Submitted by Sunwing Media)

"I'm a big fan of competition, but competition only works if it's real competition," she said. 

"Also, bear in mind that WestJet still has a major, big competitor in the business, and that's Air Canada."

What will Canada's airline industry look like in the future?

It's likely more airlines will consolidate, according to Gradek. 

"Post pandemic, business has been good. Planes are full, fares are high. Airlines are feeling much more comfortable in flexing their muscle to look at trying to consolidate, reduce the competition," he said. 

Last month, WestJet pilots reached a new deal with the airline that will see their pay rise 24 per cent over the next four years.

The airline is now looking for ways to pay for that by reducing expenses, and possibly by streamlining redundant positions across Sunwing, Swoop and WestJet, Gradek said.

Other discount carriers such as Flair and Lynx are probably in WestJet's sights, he added.