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WestJet’s St. John’s-London route goes live, sparking anger over affordable air travel within the Netherlands

Newfoundland and Labrador is once again connected to Europe with a direct flight to the United Kingdom this summer, but government subsidies on the St. John’s to London route have a Labrador MHA calling for greater attention to the high cost of travel within the province.

WestJet’s newest route, which flies three times a week from May to October, will operate for the next three years. It is 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 a plane,” Alexis von Hoensbroech, chief executive of WestJet, told reporters Thursday in St. John’s.

“So obviously there is demand and we are happy to support that demand.”

WestJet’s previous route to London has ended due to 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 works well. And if it works well, maybe there will be room for more,” von Hoensbroech said.

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

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

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

Provincial trips are a sticking point

But because the province thinks globally, Labrador West MHA Jordan Brown says people in smaller communities would be better served if the government’s attention was directed inward.

“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on subsidizing other people’s vacations, but here in Labrador we can’t pay attention to the constantly rising costs of interprovincial travel,” Brown said, noting that a trip from Labrador West to St. John’s can cost more than $1,500.

Crocker told reporters Thursday that the government is considering travel within the province as a separate issue, unrelated to the safety of leisure routes to the mainland and beyond.

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

“It’s 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.”

Airplanes parked at an airport.
Tickets for the WestJet flight to London may cost less than traveling within Newfoundland and Labrador. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

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

It is not known how much public money was used to subsidize WestJet’s route to London; 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 that such deals were not unusual and were supposed to be short-lived.

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

“Each route has to be sustainable in its own right and there should be no routes that are constantly subsidized.”

No Halifax route on the horizon

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

But its former direct route between St. John’s and Halifax likely won’t return anytime soon.

“We did this for several years and it didn’t work very well because this market… (is) quite overserved,” von Hoensbroech said, adding that WestJet’s fleet also contains planes too large for regional routes.

“Regional flights within eastern Canada are no longer a strategic priority for us.”

The CEO said his new strategy appears to be working: His most recent flights from St. John’s are doing booming business.

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

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