Locals hoping to fly non-stop to Cuba this winter are out of luck.
Sault Ste. Marie Airport CEO Terry Bos told SooToday that Sunwing Airlines is not expected to return for the 2023-24 winter season amid an ongoing pilot and flight crew shortage.
“Unfortunately, it’s industry wide,” he says. “The airlines are all re-transferring into the major markets, which is why we’re seeing limited flights with our regular carriers and unfortunately not getting back the chartered season carriers either.”
Earlier this summer, Sunwing released its winter schedule, which includes flights from 23 airports to 26 sunny destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and the U.S.
Although Bos is yet to receive an official notice from Sunwing that the carrier will not be returning next winter, the Sault Ste. Marie Airport is not listed on the airline’s schedule.
Travellers attempting to book a Sunwing flight out of the Sault, which is still a listed airport on the company website, are also no longer able to do so.
“We had spoken with some of the Sunwing staff who had told us it didn’t look like we’d be on the schedule,” he says. “We’re still awaiting confirmation from someone higher up, but considering the schedule is out and we’re not on it, it’s a pretty good reason to believe what we were told originally is probably correct.”
“The chances of them coming back this season are slim. They’re not coming back into regional airports this winter due to lack of equipment and manpower. It’s only the major hub airports.”
In a normal year, Sunwing would operate at the Sault Ste. Marie Airport in the snowy months from December to March. Last year, the airline flew more than 4,500 passengers to and from Cuba between December and April — a standout season, according to Bos.
“It was surprising to not get them back,” he says. “It was probably our best season with them. The previous high was only broken a couple times when we had both Sunwing and Transat in the winters of 2012 and 2013 when we broke 5,000.”
Earlier this year, Canada’s second-largest airline, WestJet, closed a multi-billion-dollar deal to purchase Sunwing Vacations and Sunwing Airlines.
As reported by the Canadian Press in May 2023, the federal government approved the takeover by WestJet despite a warning from the Competition Bureau that the purchase would likely result in higher prices and decreased services — especially around package deals.
Despite this, Bos is confident the merger likely didn’t have any influence on Sunwing’s decision to leave town.
“It’s really a coincidence,” he says. “We weren’t anticipating losing Sunwing, whether they merged or not. Before the sale was finalized, they announced they were pulling out of Sudbury and North Bay last winter, but we anticipated that we were in the clear.”
“As part of the merger, we anticipated they would essentially keep what they had before, but I guess we didn’t quite end up in there.”
Bos notes the loss of Sunwing will create a hole in a number of revenue streams for the airport. Attracting fewer customers from the U.S. and southern Ontario will be among the anticipated hits.
“We had people coming here to take those flights from lots of places, including southern Ontario like London and Windsor,” he says. “They were coming here because Sunwing had the best vacation package out of Sault Ste. Marie to Cuba. Obviously, we’re not going to be attracting those people back here, so it will impact our passenger numbers for sure.”
The nearest Canadian base for Sunwing is now Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
While passengers using Air Canada and Porter in the Sault are accustomed to hopping on connecting flights when they land in Toronto, locals eyeing a Cuba trip will have to prepare to do the same.
“It sucks,” Bos says. “We’ll certainly be pushing for them to return next winter as I’m sure my counterparts in the north are doing the exact same thing. Hopefully, times are better then, and they can expand the routes and see where it goes from there.”
SooToday has reached out to Sunwing Airlines for comment and is awaiting a response.