BY MARIO CANSECO
Southern connection: Airlines and airports here and likely to suffer as Bellingham and Seattle become more attractive options
Spring break presents an ideal opportunity for British Columbians to take a holiday. It also provides a chance to take a closer look at the love-hate relationship the province’s residents have with airlines, airports and the general hassles of travelling by plane.
Almost 1½ years have passed since the federal government ordered Canada’s carriers to advertise the full price of airfares. The legislation was supposed to herald a new era of transparency for frequent flyers, but it appears to have had little effect. In the latest Insights West survey, 79 per cent of British Columbians believe the advertised prices of airline tickets are never the same as what they end up paying.
This evident discrepancy between advertising and reality can be blamed on several fees and surcharges that sometimes appear only after a final decision on an itinerary has been made.
There’s the navigational surcharge, which covers the fees that airlines pay to operate and use air navigation systems. There’s also the insurance surcharge, which partly offsets the costs of aviation insurance. There’s also the air travellers security charge, established after 9/11 to fund government expenditures on air travel security. Add the airport improvement fees that are sometimes used to fund renovations, and maybe a checked-in baggage charge for a second piece of luggage, and Canadians are definitely paying more to travel than what they thought they would.
British Columbians are definitely noticing the fees, surcharges and premiums they have to pay, and 75 per cent say they are flying less as a result.
Meanwhile, some British Columbians embraced the concept of carry-on only trips, hoping to save money and time.
Some want to avoid long lineups at baggage claim; others prefer to have all of their possessions handy, particularly if their stay will be short.
The practice, however, is putting a squeeze on cabin space. Some 47 per cent of B.C. respondents say they have put everything in one carry-on bag at least once to avoid having to check-in baggage. Yet, 25 per cent report being on a flight where they could not place their carry-on bag in the overhead bins. There is little point in cramming everything in one bag only to have it taken away by airline personnel.
There are many British Columbians who are avoiding some of these problems, and the solution involves forgoing Canadian airports and airlines altogether. In the past three years, 43 per cent of British Columbians have driven to the U.S. to take a flight, usually from Bellingham or Seattle. Half of Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley residents have done this at least once.
The option of flying to a destination from the United States, practically unbearable in the aftermath of 9/11, is now being entertained by more and more residents. Three-in-five British Columbians (61 per cent) say they have searched flights online to look for options flying out of an American airport.
The most interesting aspect of this change in the behaviour of British Columbians lies in the fact that it is those with the highest income demographic — those who live in households earning more than $100,000 a year — who are more likely to take advantage of the opportunity to drive south, instead of starting their holiday from a Canadian airport.
There is also a generational shift in play.
British Columbians aged 18-to-34 are more likely to research flights online and to ultimately drive to an American airport to get to their desired destination.
Canadian carriers cannot ignore this change, which could potentially make them lose their customers. If the youngest flyers simply choose to start all trips in Washington state, because of the perceived inconvenience of dealing with Canada’s regulations and fees, domestic airlines and airports will definitely suffer.