Rob Reid’s face sports a day’s growth of stubble and a relieved expression when the boarding call comes for Flight 823. He has a nearly 9,000-kilometre commute from work, so every hour he can save getting home to his family in Catalina is precious.
“It’s a long run,” he said with a laugh as he waited for the Air Canada direct flight to St. John’s to board in Terminal 3 at Heathrow International Airport in London.
“I’ve been flying since yesterday.”
Reid is an oilfield worker in Saudi Arabia, a five-week on, five-week off job he took two years ago so he could move his family home to Newfoundland from the Alberta oilpatch.
After flying seven hours from Bahrain to London, Reid had five and a half hours to go before landing and hopping in his truck for the three-hour drive home to his wife and two children, ages five and eight.
But that journey is a whole lot nicer for Reid than flying over St. John’s to Halifax or Toronto. Sometimes, there are stopovers in both cities.
“You do eight hours of flying for no reason,” Reid said.
The direct flight is a May-to-September luxury that Reid would obviously love to see made year-round.
“Because I’d be using it, I can tell you that,” he said.
His sentiment is shared by Alexander Goodall, an English horticulturalist.
“I can tell you what’s even more heartbreaking is when you can see it from the sky and you know you’ve got 90 minutes to go and 90 minutes to come back,” said Goodall, who bought a house in Greenspond, near New-Wes-Valley, in 2007.
He travels back and forth about six times a year.
“Newfoundland is the best place in the world,” Goodall said.
When Air Canada restored the direct flight last summer, Goodall could make his vacation home in 15 1/2 hours door to door from his house outside Cambridge, U.K.
“If I have to go to Halifax, it’s 22 hours,” Goodall said, adding he’d do anything to sell the province as a worthwhile destination.
His furnished house — with private cove and sweeping vistas, bought for less than $30,000 — would cost him between $750,000 and $1 million in England, he said.
A few days earlier, in the departure lounge at St. John’s airport, Ken Brown, quality manager at Technip U.K., was waiting for the first direct flight of the season to take off.
He said the flight shaves hours off of travel for business.
It departs 10 p.m. and arrives 6:30 a.m. at Heathrow, allowing business travellers to be in the office bright and early or make connections to cities like Aberdeen, Scotland or Stavanger, Norway.
“It makes it more accessible to come to this part of the world,” Brown said. “We really enjoy it.”
Across the lounge, former St. John’s mayor Andy Wells, now chairman of the Public Utilities Board, was departing on holiday with his wife.
“Use it or lose it,” Wells said.
“It’s very important to St. John’s. Air Canada will keep it on as long as there’s business. They’re not going to put a plane on half empty.”
Keith Colins, president and CEO of the St. John’s International Airport Authority, said Air Canada was pleased with the numbers from 2010, when it reinstated direct service for the late May to September season.
The authority and Air Canada organized a weekend media visit to London to promote the direct flight.
“Last year went very, very well,” Collins said.
May to September is when demand for service peaks.
“I think it always depends on how the service is taken up. I think it’s important that whether it’s available for four months a year, six or 12, that it be used by the public in Newfoundland,” Collins said.
“The stronger the traffic levels are on that flight, the more likely it is that Air Canada would enjoy financial success and bring it back every year and perhaps even extend the service.”
While business travel continues year-round, leisure travel peaks in the summer. Plus, there’s the advantage of Heathrow’s connections to the rest of the world.
“It arrives at 6:30 in the morning and if you are going to London you can be downtown in a couple hours. If you are going beyond London, you have all day to make your connections,” Collins said.
“It’s a strategic airport and also a very well-timed flight.”
The airport authority, like travellers, would also like to see a year-round direct flight. But the reality is demand is not equal throughout the year.
“I think if the demand were to become more evident in the shoulder season, I believe Air Canada would look seriously on the opportunity to serve that,” Collins said.
“They may look for somebody in the community to share their business risk if they were to extend the service beyond four months. My sense is that the next logical step would be to try to get an April to October six-month season, rather than four months.”
Collins said the provincial government, through its air access strategy, has shown it wants to work with airports to recruit airlines, as well as work with airlines to market the province as a destination.
“Perhaps there is an opportunity for them to expand their strategy to include things like revenue guarantees or some sort of business risk sharing with airlines that are looking to fly really important and strategic routes,” Collins said.
Susan Grant, regional general manager of passenger sales for Atlantic Canada, said Air Canada hopes to offer year-round direct service in the near future, but that can only be accomplished with community support and promotion of the province in England. She said record high fuel prices are putting more pressure on the sustainability of the service.
The flight is reviewed each year for customer demand, and the airline hopes to first test April to October before trying year-round.
“The load factor and the performance were good in the peak months last year. The challenge is with the shoulder periods, May-early June, which brings down the overall performance. A winter operation will be an even bigger challenge,” Grant said.
The direct flight service operates until Sept. 27, with a capacity of 120. On its first flight of the season, the plane had 100 passengers.
Top connections include Aberdeen, Doha, Dublin, Frankfurt, Oslo, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Glasgow, Manchester and Amsterdam.
Provincial Tourism Minister Terry French said the seasonal direct flight helps the province market itself.
“This certainly helps us grow our visitation from the United Kingdom, and we would like to see this flight on a year-round basis,” French said in an email.
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