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WestJet’s St. John’s-to-London route goes live — sparking anger over affordable air travel within N.L. | CBC News

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Newfoundland and Labrador is connected once more to Europe with a direct flight to the United Kingdom this summer, but government subsidies of the St. John’s-to-London route has one Labrador MHA demanding closer attention to the high cost of travel within the province.

The newest WestJet route, which flies three times weekly from May until October, will run for the next three years. It’s the first time a direct intercontinental route has been offered in Newfoundland since 2019.

“It’s a vast geography and it’s difficult to get here unless you take an airplane,” Alexis von Hoensbroech, WestJet CEO, told reporters Thursday in St. John’s.

“So there’s obviously demand, and we are happy to support this demand.”

WestJet’s previous route to London ended because of COVID-19 restrictions. Its return was delayed due to a pilot shortage, but the route had always been in high demand before the pandemic, von Hoensbroech said.

The airline hinted at the possibility of more European routes appearing in the future if this season generates enough business.

“We hope this runs well. And if it runs well, maybe there’s room for more,” von Hoensbroech said.

Tourism Minister Steve Crocker said the flight to London represents a unique opportunity for U.K. tourists, who can now fly to St. John’s for a weekend trip.

He also said the province was looking for more direct routes to Europe — and eyeing Germany in particular, given new business connections in the wind energy industry.

Germany is also the second-largest market for incoming tourists, Crocker said.

Provincial travel a sticking point

But with the province thinking globally, Labrador West MHA Jordan Brown says people in smaller communities would be better served by government attention turned inward.

“We’re spending so much emphasis on subsidizing other people’s vacations, but here in Labrador we can’t get any attention on the constant rising costs of interprovincial travel,” Brown said, pointing out that a trip from Labrador West to St. John’s can cost over $1,500.

Crocker told reporters Thursday the government is looking at travel inside the province as a separate issue, unrelated to securing leisure routes to the mainland and beyond.

Brown disagreed, arguing the government should implement a task force to introduce more affordable options for intraprovincial travel.

“It is the same issue. It’s about travel, it’s about connectivity,” Brown said. “We can’t get an answer from this government on anything interprovincial.” 

Tickets for WestJet’s London flight might cost less than travelling within Newfoundland and Labrador. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This year’s budget includes $3.75 million earmarked for several airport authorities to use as they see fit.

It’s not known how much public money was used to subsidize WestJet’s London route; Crocker says that number was part of an agreement between the airline and the St. John’s International Airport Authority.

Von Hoensbroech also did not disclose the amount but told reporters such agreements weren’t unusual and were supposed to be short-lived.

“When it comes to new routes, it’s pretty common across Canada that there’s some risk-sharing at the beginning,” he said.

“Every route has to be sustainable in its own right, and there shouldn’t be routes that receive constant subsidies.”

No Halifax route on horizon

WestJet has also recently installed new direct flights between St. John’s and Calgary, and Deer Lake and Toronto.

But its old direct route between St. John’s and Halifax likely isn’t coming back any time soon.

“We did this for quite some years and it did not work out very well because this market … [is] pretty overserved,” von Hoensbroech said, adding WestJet’s fleet also contains aircraft too large for regional routes. 

“Regional flying within eastern Canada is not a strategic priority for us anymore.”

The CEO said its new strategy appears to be working: its newest flights out of St. John’s are doing booming business.

“So far routes to Calgary and Gatwick are selling very well,” he said. “Very promising.”

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