Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has fashioned itself as a protector of consumers’ interests. Last month’s throne speech promised, among other things, to reduce cell phone roaming fees, make it possible for cable subscribers to pick and choose channels and reduce the price gap between the U.S. and Canada when it comes to things like books and television sets. But notably absent from the list were steps to prevent an estimated five million Canadians from driving across the border every year to fly from U.S. airports, where flights are about 30 per cent cheaper on average.
Now a Toronto-based seller of packaged holidays is taking the unusual step of following its customers across the border. Sunquest Vacations said Thursday it’s planning to offer Canadians vacation packages this winter from five U.S. border airports. They are: Bellingham (WA), Burlington (VT), Buffalo (NY), Bangor (ME) and Detroit (MI).
“As long as significantly cheaper flights are available from the U.S., Canadians will continue to fly from U.S. border cities,” Frank DeMarinis, Sunquest’s president said in a statement. “We are giving the customers what they clearly want, which is an option to save money on their vacation by booking cross-border packages with a reputable Canadian company and paying for it in Canadian dollars.” The seller of packaged holidays estimates that a couple saves an average of $550 when booking vacations to sun destinations from U.S. cities.
Sunquest said the packaged holidays would be offered in partnership with U.S. airlines, putting it in compliance with international rules, but would still be subject to consumer protection safeguards in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. Sunquest will continue to offer packaged holidays from Canadian airports in partnership with Air Canada and WestJet.
Both Canadian and foreign airlines long complained about the comparatively high cost of operating in this country, which they blame largely on Ottawa’s policy of charging airports rent and taxes on jet fuel in some provinces. A report from the Senate Transport Committee earlier this year called on the government to phase out its airport rent policy, noting that about $2.5 billion in rent has been collected from the country’s airports over the past decade. That’s money that ultimately comes out of passengers’ pockets. The fees were part of the deal struck when Ottawa spun-off its national airport holdings to non-profit airport authorities in the 1990s. At Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, the country’s largest, rent obligations have been blamed for contributing to Pearson’s reputation as being among most expensive in the world for airlines to land their planes.
So far, the federal government has shown no indication that it’s willing to forgo hundreds of millions in annual airport revenue. And the stance seems likely to continue given Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s promise to balance the budget within two years. But Ottawa’s position will be increasingly difficult to justify if more vacation companies follow Sunquest’s lead and relocate their services south of the border—all in the interest of better serving Canadian customers back home.