With plans to expand its international and domestic reach, including a commitment to restarting operations in the Caribbean, Air Canada’s summer schedule, in the age of COVID-19, represents the dawn of new era for Canada’s flagship carrier.
After months of suspended service and grounded airplanes, the carrier's July and August schedule shows flights to just over 90 destinations within Canada and around the world.
But at heart, Air Canada's summer schedule marks the start of a "three-year reconstruction job" aimed at rebuilding a global network that was, really, nearly decimated by the coronavirus crisis when it hit.
“We see July and August as the first step of very long process to getting Air Canada back up to where it was long ago,” Mark Galardo, vice-president of network planning and alliances at Air Canada, told PAX in a recent exclusive interview.
The return to Shanghai
The airline is taking baby steps as it picks up the pieces of its operations, battered after months of economic turmoil caused by government-ordered travel restrictions, border closures, quarantine orders and public health scares.
The recovery process is slow and steady – a “step-by-step approach,” as Galardo put it – even as the pandemic is far from over.
In July, Air Canada began offering flights back to Greece, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland, to name a few.
In August, Air Canada will resume service to Shanghai (PVG) and add incremental frequencies to Athens and London-Heathrow.
The Shanghai service, for one, reflects Air Canada’s gradual, but “critical,” return to China, Galardo explained.
“The demand [for service] between Canada and China is big,” Galardo said. “There’s a big Chinese community here in Canada, [as well as] strong business links between the countries and a strong cargo demand.”
The Vancouver – Shanghai (AC25) flight will resume on August 7th, (a Friday) with Shanghai – Vancouver (AC26) on August 8th (a Saturday), at a frequency of one flight per week, to start.
The Caribbean & Canada
Kickstarting operations in the Caribbean is also key this summer.
In addition to increasing frequencies to Jamaica, Air Canada will add six more sun destinations in the second half of July and August, including Martinique/Guadeloupe, Turks and Caicos, Aruba, St. Vincent and Saint Lucia.
There’s work on the domestic front, too.
In June, Air Canada announced that it was indefinitely suspending service on 30 domestic regional routes and closing eight stations at regional airports in Canada.
This summer, the airline will serve 41 Canadian stations, including three new start-ups in Cranbrook (YXC), Penticton (YYF) and Smithers (YYD).
It’s also expanding its non-stop YYZ-YLW service to four-times weekly, and introducing a new Calgary-Winnipeg and Calgary-Victoria daily service.
The build is incremental. By August, the carrier will offer more than 85,000 domestic seats and more than 900 incremental domestic flights versus July.
All this, notably, is roughly between 20 to 25 per cent of what Air Canada’s operations would look like under normal circumstances, Galardo explained.
After all, the world is still grappling with the effects of COVID-19, and Canadians, too, are still bound to their own travel bans and quarantine orders.
The schedule, for it is, is "realistic," said Galardo.
“The problem we’re facing is that most of our historical data that guides our decisions, at this point in time, is useless,” he said. “We’ve had to rely on other forward-looking data to give us a sense of where to put capacity.
“It’s a new way of planning an airline,” he said.
The push to ease restrictions
But travel restrictions are really the main reason why Air Canada is, understandably, “not able to take a bigger step,” Galardo explained.
Easing Canada’s own travel rules is something Air Canada has already been pushing for.
On July 15th, the airline’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jim Chung issued a letter urging the Canadian government to consider a science-based approach to easing the Quarantine Act restrictions to strike a better balance for travellers and for the economy without impacting public health.
Air Canada is not proposing that Canada relax its border restrictions with the United States – where COVID-19 infections have surged past the 4 million mark – but only to replace the quarantine requirements for countries with a low COVID-19 risk.
“We’re hoping the government will engage in a dialogue with us,” said Galardo. “It’s crucial for our own economy to get tourism back up and running.”
10 years down the drain
Despite all this, the economic devastation caused by COVID-19 continues to cast a dark, depressing shadow.
In a forecast published in June, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said the coronavirus crisis will lead the global air transport industry into record annual losses of $84.3 billion (USD) in 2020.
Air Canada, for one, posted a $1.05 billion-dollar loss in May, reflecting a dramatic contrast to the $345 million in profit Air Canada made in the same quarter last year
Looking back at what Air Canada was then, compared to now, isn’t easy.
“We put Canada on the world stage, from a global aviation perspective,” Galardo said, reflecting on the pre-COVID days when Air Canada’s global network “rivalled most other major carriers.”
In March, when global travel restrictions began to unfold, Air Canada was forced to reduce its international network from 101 airports to six. It’s U.S. transborder services, then, was also reduced from 53 airports to 13.
“It took over a decade to build that,” Galardo told PAX. “All of that effort got put on hold and was broken within two weeks. It’s quite traumatizing.”
Health, safety & flexibility
Air Canada has since emerged from the ashes as an airline focused on health, safety, and flexibility.
It’s CleanCare+ program, for example, is an industry-leading action plan that implements end-to-end health and safety protocols, such as temperature checks and complimentary care kits for all passengers. (For more on that, click here).
Air Canada is also, notably, allowing travellers to use Future Travel Credits, whenever they want, with no expiration date.
“We believe we’ve made flying extremely safe and a low-risk proposition,” said Galardo.
Canada’s travel trade community will also play a significant part in the airline's recovery, he added.
“A healthy Canadian airline sector is a win-win for the travel agency community,” said Galardo. “We’re going to be counting on them to help us rebuild our impressive network.”
Building capacity where risk is low
As for what Air Canada’s upcoming winter season – traditionally the busiest time for travel, under normal circumstances – will look like, it’s too soon to tell.
“We’ve had ideas, drawing up multiple scenarios that range from optimistic to pessimistic,” said Galardo. “Our goal is to build capacity in areas where there’s the least amount of risk for our travelling public. “
The U.S., where COVID-19 cases have surged well past the 4 million mark, isn’t necessarily exempt from the rebuild either.
Air Canada has continued to fly to the U.S. from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and will also be launching service to Dallas, Portland, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
“When the U.S. shows signs of recovery, we’ll be the best positioned to respond,” Galardo said in a recent video uploaded to Air Canada’s YouTube channel.
Big things are built one brick (or flight) at a time, they say.
“It’s different than what we’re used to,” Galardo told PAX. “We’re optimistic that, eventually, we will recover and get back to where we were not long ago.”
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