How Canada's major airports compare in returning to pre-pandemic passenger volumes

May 23 2023, 9:39 pm

Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) and Vancouver International Airport (YVR) remain Canada’s busiest major airports in terms of total passenger volumes, but both airports fell behind when it comes to the recovery rate of their pre-pandemic volumes.

Data compiled by Daily Hive Urbanized shows Canada’s busiest airport of YYZ recorded 35.6 million passengers in 2022, representing a 70% recovery of its 50.5 million passengers in pre-pandemic 2019. YVR saw 72% of its pre-pandemic volumes in 2022, recording 19 million passengers against the airport’s all-time record of 26.4 million it experienced in 2019.

Amongst Canada’s seven largest international airports, Calgary International Airport (YYC) came out at the top for its 2022 recovery rate of 81% of 2019 volumes. It saw 14.5 million passengers last year, narrowing the gap from the 2019 figure of 18 million.

The high growth of YYC is largely driven by WestJet’s recent decision to double down on growing its main hub, which is located in Calgary, for the airline’s post-pandemic global expansion — a decision arising from the recalibration of the global aviation industry emerging out of the pandemic.

“WestJet needs to focus on one market and Calgary is their home and natural choice, so it is no surprise to see them focussing here. But the market is ultimately limited in size which will at some point restrict future growth and lead to them having to build out elsewhere, which of course will be Toronto although the airport is very busy and congested at peak times,” John Grant, an aviation analytics expert with British firms OAG Aviation and MIDAS Aviation, told Daily Hive Urbanized.

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Calgary International Airport (YYC). (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Calgary International Airport (YYC). (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ). (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

In Fall 2022, WestJet announced an agreement with the Government of Alberta to double its capacity at YYC before the end of the decade, designating Calgary as its exclusive global connecting hub.

Early this year, Calgary Airport Authority indicated WestJet’s decision to focus its expansion in YYC would result in 25% more passengers at the airport in 2023 — a near total recovery to 2019 passenger levels of between 17 million and 18 million. This accounts for WestJet’s expanded route options from Calgary to Tokyo, Barcelona, and Edinburgh starting this summer, along with other domestic expansions.

But Grant does not believe YYC’s projected passenger growth will topple YVR’s longstanding position as Canada’s second busiest airport.

“The international flows alone from Vancouver are such that their position is pretty much assured, and once Asia fully reopens then Vancouver will be the natural first choice Canadian destination for many markets,” he said.

YVR is Canada’s TransPacific hub and gateway, with a higher proportion of its traffic coming from international destinations (not including US transborder). Prior to the pandemic, YVR’s strongest international market was the Asia-Pacific, accounting for about annual 4.5 million passengers or 18% of the airport’s total passengers — over two and a half times larger than the European market.

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Vancouver International Airport (YVR). (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Domestic bag conveyance system at Vancouver International Airport. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

While YVR saw a relatively strong recovery in 2022, the sluggish pace of the recovery of its Asian connections has put a dent in its potential performance.

The Asia-Pacific market accounted for about 1.9 million or 10% of YVR’s total passenger volumes in 2022.

Over the first three months of 2023, the Asia-Pacific market improved to being responsible for 15% of YVR’s total passenger volumes — about 830,000 passengers of the 5.5 million passengers recorded between January and March this year, which is double the volumes recorded in the first three months of 2022.

But major connections to Mainland China and Hong Kong continue to lag, and it is unclear whether the significant pre-pandemic growth of routes to Mainland China will return amidst the political tensions between Canada and China.

Before the pandemic, there were over two dozen direct flights between YVR and Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) per week. Air Canada has returned to its pre-pandemic frequency of daily flights between YVR and HKG, but Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Airlines is behind with returning to its pre-pandemic frequency of two or three flights per day. Currently, Cathay operates about one flight per day.

Mainland China and Hong Kong only began to rescind their pandemic-time health safety restrictions in late 2022.

“Airlines in Asia are slowly rebuilding their international networks, and Vancouver will be a major part of that rebuild. For many airlines there are challenges in their rebuilding, shortages of spare parts, crew shortages, etc. are all frustrating the recovery, and Cathay are no exception to that, but the market is certainly there and rebounding back,” said Grant.

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Calgary International Airport (YYC). (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Edmonton International Airport (YEG). (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Edmonton International Airport (YEG). (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

When asked how Canada’s aviation industry has recovered overall, he said the country “probably has one of the poorest over-regulated recoveries from the pandemic in the world.”

“Canada’s recovery has been much slower than other places, partly by the lengthier lockdowns and restrictions and partly since available resources have been constrained with skilled labour not coming back to the market.”

In an email to Daily Hive Urbanized upon inquiry, the Vancouver Airport Authority says YVR is on track to see 22 million passengers in 2023. The coming months will also be far busier than Summer 2022, with YVR forecasting an average of 80,000 passengers per day in Summer 2023 — slightly behind its 85,000 per day average in 2019.

According to Statistics Canada, Canadian air passengers reached a total of 62.7 million in 2022 — nearly triple the volume of 2021 and 73.4% of pre-pandemic 2019 levels.

Here’s a breakdown of passenger recovery rates of Canada’s seven largest international airports:

  1. Calgary International Airport (YYC)
    • 2019: 18 million
      • Domestic: 12.5 million
      • US transboder: 3.5 million
      • Other International: 1.9 million
    • 2022: 14.5 million (81% of 2019)
      • Domestic: 10.6 million
      • US transboder: 2.5 million
      • Other International: 1.4 million
  2. Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL)
    • 2019: 20.3 million
      • Domestic: 7.2 million
      • US transboder: 4.5 million
      • Other International: 8.6 million
    • 2022: 16 million (79% of 2019)
      • Domestic: 5.4 million
      • US transboder: 3.5 million
      • Other International: 7.1 million
  3. Edmonton International Airport (YEG)
    • 2019: 8.2 million
      • Domestic: 6.2 million
      • US transboder: 1.0 million
      • Other International: 0.4 million
    • 2022: 5.9 million (76% of 2019)
      • Domestic: 4.7 million
      • US transboder: 0.4 million
      • Other International: 0.3 million
  4. Halifax International Airport (YHZ)
    • 2019: 4.2 million
      • Domestic: 3.5 million
      • US transboder: 0.4 million
      • Other International: 0.3 million
    • 2022: 3.1 million (74% of 2019)
      • Domestic: 2.8 million
      • US transboder: 0.1 million
      • Other International: 0.2 million
  5. Vancouver International Airport (YVR)
    • 2019: 26.4 million
      • Domestic: 12.7 million
      • US transborder international: 6.4 million
      • Other International: 7.3 million
    • 2022: 19 million (72% of 2019)
      • Domestic: 10.6 million
      • US transborder international: 4.4 million
      • Other International: 4.0 million
  6. Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ)
    • 2019: 50.5 million
      • Domestic: 29.2 million
      • All international (including US transborder): 21.3 million*
    • 2022: 35.6 million (70% of 2019)
      • Domestic: 14.3 million
      • All international (including US transborder): 21.3 million*
        • *Separate US transborder data was not provided by YYZ
  7.  Ottawa International Airport (YOW)
    • 2019: 5.1 million
      • Domestic: 4.0 million
      • US transboder: 0.7 million
      • Other International: 0.4 million
    • 2022: 3.0 million (59% of 2019)
      • Domestic: 2.7 million
      • US transboder: 0.2 million
      • Other International: 0.1 million
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