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Calgary airport becoming a connection of choice for U.S. travellers heading overseas

When planning a special five-week, overseas family vacation to celebrate her birthday and other milestones, Kelly Gillease was willing to splurge a bit on travel expenses to kick off the June trip.

Airline prices for a direct flight to Paris from San Francisco, where she lives, were around $4,500 US for three one-way economy tickets. Then Gillease noticed a deal to pay an extra $500 US per person to travel in business class, which included lie-flat seats.

“The differential was not very large to get a much nicer experience,” said Gillease, who works in marketing. “We thought it’s worth it to kick off the trip and get lie-flat seats and pay not much more money than what we would have paid to fly economy direct from San Francisco.” 

The family bought the tickets to help ensure they were well-rested upon landing in Paris, where they would be for only four hours before travelling on to Corsica, a Mediterranean island in France. Their itinerary also included stops in Denmark and Norway, before spending the final two weeks on an African safari. 

The catch? They had to make a connection in Calgary and fly with WestJet.

When Gillease chose to hub her international voyage through Calgary, she became part of a trend that has seen an increase in American travellers, mostly from the west coast, who are flying with WestJet to overseas destinations. 

Airplanes parked at an airport.
A record number of Americans flew with WestJet to Europe this summer. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Record figures

This summer, 86,000 passengers on international flights with WestJet began or ended their journey in the U.S., which is a record high for the airline.

The number of Americans on WestJet’s transatlantic flights is up nearly 70 per cent compared to last summer, the airline said.

All of WestJet’s flights to Asia and Europe are based out of Calgary. The airline operates year-round or seasonal flights to Tokyo as well as European cities like Edinburgh, London, Rome, Barcelona, Dublin and Paris.

There are a variety of reasons for the rise in U.S. passengers flying through Calgary, including an increase this year in the number of international flights by WestJet.

Those extra seats come at a time of high demand, high prices and few available seats on many U.S. and European airlines on flights across the Atlantic Ocean, which has created an “extremely strong” air travel market, said John Grant, the chief data analyst at OAG, an aviation analytics firm.

“The continued post-pandemic ‘revenge-spend’ phenomena is in existence,” said Grant, who is based in the United Kingdom. “The strength of the U.S. dollar has encouraged more U.S. visitors to Europe.”

Grant added that people will often opt for a indirect flight because they think they can get a cheaper fare. “And sometimes they can.” 

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WestJet has increased the number of overseas flights over the last decade. (Tiphanie Roquette/CBC)

Soaring costs

The number of seats on flights between the U.S. and Europe is only three per cent lower this summer compared to 2019, said Hayley Berg, the Boston-based lead economist for Hopper, an airfare finder app.

But fares for those flights are up sharply as airlines cash in on consumer cravings for trips abroad. The average ticket price for a round-trip transatlantic flight in June was $1,054 US, a nearly 17 per cent increase compared to 2019, according to Berg.

“We have seen very high airfare throughout the summer. I would say from the perspective of June and July, it was the highest airfare that we’ve seen from the U.S. to Europe in the last five or six years at least,” she said.

Following the pandemic disruptions to the industry, some American and European airlines no longer operate transatlantic flights or haven’t brought back as many routes. The industry also faces labour challenges, relatively high jet fuel prices and limitations at some airports.

WestJet has cut several region routes in Canada but added more international seats out of Calgary.

“WestJet has seen an increased demand for U.S.-based transatlantic travel that exceeds all years prior to 2023,” WestJet spokesperson Julia Kaiser said in an e-mailed statement. 

“This increase, alongside significant demand of our Canadian-based guests, has resulted in WestJet adding transatlantic flights and destinations by welcoming Tokyo-Narita to our network and increasing service to Paris to a year-round cadence.” 

Choosing Calgary

The number of U.S. travellers is “very important for WestJet, no doubt about it,” said Grant, the analyst with OAG. 

Calgary is a good connection from many cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, but it’s still a relatively small international hub airport, Grant said.

“It’s also about price and you’re dealing with people at the most price-sensitive point in the market. They don’t have brand loyalty to WestJet, they have brand loyalty to their personal income and expenditure. So it would be folly to place more and more capacity on the basis purely of the connecting markets,” he said.

For Gillease, who had flown with WestJet several years ago, the flights from San Francisco to Calgary to Paris were a “lovely” experience in terms of food, customer service and comfy seats, she said. 

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Unfortunately, upon arriving in Paris, her husband’s luggage didn’t turn up. Missing was a large backpack with belongings they specifically packed for the safari, including hiking shoes.

At one point, the bag was marked as permanently missing and they didn’t think they would ever get it back, said Gillease.  But after three weeks, it arrived in Europe — just in time for the family’s flight to Africa the following day.

The family is waiting to be reimbursed for expenses connected with the lost bag. Still, Gillease would fly with WestJet again from the U.S., though she’d hesitate to check any luggage.

“I would fly them again if I just had carry-ons because the flight experience was so nice,” she said.

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