When I recently attended TBEX (Travel Blogger Exchange) in Toronto, I searched for months in advance, but the cheapest fare I found during that time was still over $550. Eventually I redeemed 25,000 miles for a 5-hour flight each way in a cramped economy-class seat on a regional jet. I also paid over $60 in taxes and fees — almost as much as I paid for my entire 19,000-mile business class itinerary through Southeast Asia later this year. The more you do this, the more you realize that price has nothing to do with how far you travel.
But still, why does it cost so much to fly to Canada?
(Or from Canada… or within Canada… since many Canadians are known to drive to U.S. airports across the border.)
Many of these questions are examined in an article by Scott Deveau of the National Post. One big factor is competition — or lack thereof. Air Canada and WestJet are the only major carriers that operate within Canada, and even many of the flights United markets are really codeshares operated by Air Canada.
Second are subsidies. Canada has a huge rural territory subsidized by more profitable routes between major cities and to international destinations. Airport operations themselves are not subsidized nearly as much as in the U.S. For example, the Canadian government no longer owns many airports, but it still owns the land beneath them and charges rent to the operating authorities.
Third are taxes and fees. The airport security fee is CAN $12.10 but can be as low as USD $5.00 here in the states. I can understand why: after leaving customs my boarding pass was checked four times during the security screening process (at the start and end of the line, and at the start and end of the scanning machine). For this and more, they make the TSA look like a model of efficiency.
The so-called “airport improvement” fee varies by airports (and many U.S. airports have them, too) but they seem especially high in Canada. Mr. Deveau’s article estimated an average improvement fee of CAN $25, with Toronto-Pearson’s among the highest. It was a nice airport, but I’m not sure it was nice enough (or necessary) to deserve all the extra funds. Furthermore, a single public transit link (without connections) between the airport and downtown won’t be built until 2015. Even the shuttle bus I took back from my hotel required me to transfer to a larger coach.
Megan and I have talked about visiting Canada more often. In theory it shouldn’t cost much as we live very close to the Canadian border. But I continue to feel that Canada is often a horrible value proposition.
For example, I did two quick searches for flights from Seattle to either Toronto or New York on weekends in August and October. The cheapest fares in August were $693 to Toronto and $503 to New York. In October, New York dropped to $380 and Toronto actually increased to $702. In all cases, the lowest fares were on U.S. carriers, travel times were similar, and either destination would cost $50-70 more for a nonstop option (which, at that point, would mean flying Air Canada to Toronto).
Despite the connection, a trip to New York promises me all mainline aircraft. Toronto likely means regional jets on part or all of the trip. Yes, there’s a seat back AVOD on Air Canada’s EMB-190s, but television has never been a selling point for me on a transcontinental flight.
If the two of us go to New York instead (and we would go in October to skip the heat and humidity) we would save over $600 and have a more comfortable trip. We might even be able to pay for our weekend stay at a Manhattan hotel using the money we save from the flights. At the very least, it would cover a nice meal and theater tickets.
I once booked a trip to Paris with the added comfort of United’s EconomyPlus on a wide-body aircraft for the same price Air Canada wants to visit Toronto on a regional jet. (And I’m not talking about fuel dumping or mistake fares; this was just a good sale in early April.) Staying in North America, New York and Chicago each offer more culture, more restaurants, and better public transportation with a comparable or lower total cost.
Canada spends a ton on its tourism boards and outreach, which it certainly made clear at TBEX. As you can tell from my post, that didn’t do them any good because I had a bad experience getting there. I’d rather see them put those resources toward creating a more competitive air travel industry. Tout your cities all you want, but airlines and travel agencies can provide that publicity for free if they have low fares with which to rope in customers.