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WestJet Shutting Down Sunwing Airlines
WestJet will be integrating Sunwing Airlines into its mainline operations, removing another low-cost carrier from the Canadian aviation landscape. As reported by The Canadian Press, the move was announced in an internal Sunwing company memo.
The announcement comes approximately one week after it was revealed that WestJet would be shuttering its ultra-low-cost subsidiary Swoop and less than two months after WestJet completed its acquisition of Sunwing Airlines and Sunwing Vacations.
Sunwing Airlines: An Overview
Sunwing Airlines began operations in November of 2005 as a subsidiary of Sunwing Travel Group. Sunwing Travel Group has a variety of subsidiaries in the travel space, including a vacation club, a retail chain, and multiple tour operators. Sunwing Airlines passengers can purchase tickets individually or as part of Sunwing’s vacation package offerings.
Many of Sunwing Airlines’ flights are seasonal winter routes. These flights connect Canadian cities to warmer sun destinations in Central America and the Caribbean during the winter months. However, the airline also operates year-round service on its most popular routes, as well as a number of domestic flights in Canada. In the past, Sunwing has also operated flights to sun destinations from cities in the United States as part of vacation packages offered by Sunwing Travel Group subsidiary Vacation Express.
Sunwing’s fleet consists of 18 Boeing 737-800 and Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft. To boost its operations during its winter, the carrier leases aircraft from European carriers such as TUI Airways and Smartwings under. In the 2022-2023 winter season, there were a total of 30 Boeing 737s operating for Sunwing Airlines. For this reason, it is not uncommon to see a blue and white TUI Boeing 737 with an orange Sunwing tail at Canadian airports in the winter. During the summer months, Sunwing in turn leases its aircraft to European carriers for the busy European holiday season.
The Loss of a Canadian Low-C0st Carrier
Less than two weeks ago, WestJet announced that it would be winding down its ultra-low-cost subsidiary Swoop and integrating it into its mainline business. The latest announcement that Sunwing Airlines is also being shut down marks the departure of another player in Canada’s ever-changing low-cost air travel market.
One of the most unique aspects of Sunwing’s network is its seasonal service to many smaller Canadian airports. During the most recent winter season, Sunwing was the only airline offering non-stop service to sun vacation destinations from airports like Windsor International Airport and Sault Ste. Marie Airport in Ontario and Fredericton International Airport in New Brunswick. Sunwing connected these airports to popular vacation destinations for Canadians such as Cancun in Mexico, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and Varadero in Cuba.
The acquisition of key Sunwing companies by WestJet and the recent announcement that Sunwing Airlines would be shuttered raises a number of questions about the future of the Canadian aviation landscape. It follows a broader trend of consolidation in the North American airline industry and is paralleled by the acquisition of Spirit Airlines by JetBlue in the United States.
A key question is whether Sunwing’s point-to-point vacation flights from smaller Canadian airports will have a place in WestJet’s broader company strategy. There are also concerns about a reduction in competition and its associated effects. In a report delivered to Canada’s Minister of Transport, the government’s Competition Bureau noted that the acquisition would likely result in higher prices and less choice, as well as a reduction of service on overlapping routes. The Competition Bureau pointed to over 20 routes where the acquisition would likely result in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition.
Despite the Competition Bureau’s findings, the acquisition was approved by the Government of Canada in March of 2023 following a public interest assessment. The public interest assessment covered areas beyond competition and the government ended up placing a series of conditions on the purchase. These included maintaining capacity on routes most affected by the merger and ending Sunwing’s seasonal leasing practice to protect Canadian jobs.
The departure of Sunwing from the Canadian aviation landscape may provide room for growth for Canada’s newer low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers. The market has become increasingly crowded in recent years, with new players like Flair Airlines, Lynx Air and Canada Jetlines. However, the Canadian low-cost market has also historically proven to be unforgiving for many defunct airlines and subsidiaries, including Jetsgo, Zoom Airlines, Zip and Air Canada Tango.
The Planned Integration
While WestJet has previously stated that Sunwing will initially operate as a separate entity, an integration into mainline operations has always been likely. The latest announcement now sets a timeline of approximately two years for the process. WestJet’s acquisition includes Sunwing Airlines and tour operator Sunwing Vacations but does not cover other Sunwing Travel Group subsidiaries such as travel agency SelloffVacations and tour operator Vacation Express.
Sunwing’s Boeing 737-800s and Boeing 737 MAX 8s will join WestJet’s all-Boeing mainline fleet, which already includes both aircraft types. The integration will also involve approximately 2,000 Sunwing employees joining WestJet. WestJet has announced that it will be combining the WestJet and Sunwing tour operator businesses but maintaining separate WestJet Vacations and Sunwing Vacations brands. As per a condition set by the government, the vacations business will be headquartered in Toronto and a regional office will be maintained in the Montreal area for a minimum of five years. WestJet is headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, while the company’s owner, Onex Corporation, is based in Toronto.
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