After a 20 months hiatus due to you know what, Air Canada is thrilled to be flying out of Australia once again says Vic Naughton, General Manager Australia & New Zealand. We sat down with Air Canada’s head honcho in Australia for a KarryOn Q&A to find out more about what lies ahead for the airline and international travel.
Vic Naughton spent the best part of a decade with global travel group STA Travel before getting into the airline game. Joining Air Canada in 2017 from American Airlines, he played an integral role in the carrier’s return to the Australian market and saw similar growth for Air Canada before the pandemic stopped them in their tracks.
He describes himself as “a British guy living in Australia and working for Air Canada, I am the Commonwealth trio and keeping the queen happy”.
Before we hear more from Vic, though, did you know Air Canada is gifting two lucky agents (and their companions) the chance to win a dream trip to Vancouver and Whistler flying Air Canada? Yes really.
Do not miss this! Get on board and enter now.
Ok! Over to Vic.
How does it feel to be flying out of Australia again?
There’s great energy out there; I have missed that energy of working with travel agents. It has been a long 20 months for everyone, so it feels fantastic to be back.
We withdrew from the market in April 2020, which was unprecedented to be away from the market for so long, given the relations between the two countries and the amazing growth we’d had prior.
No governments have subsidised us, and we couldn’t afford the losses of flying to Australia during Covid, but it was very hard. Australia is so important for our whole network and the growth has been amazing in a short period of time. Before Covid, we had 18 weekly flights.
We were seeing a lot of growth from Air Canada Down Under over recent years pre-Covid. What’s been driving that?
To Canada the Aussie market is huge, and we have seen double-digit growth year on year. It was the perfect storm: general demand was strong both ways, both cultures and countries really get on, and the whole government trade and corporate sectors have been strong with Canadian businesses setting up offices in Australia and vice versa.
One of the key things driving success is that Canada has some of the best-functioning, high-tech airports in the world and customers are at the heart of what they do. Air Canada worked quite closely with the airports because we realised if we could get customers to transit through our airports instead of US airports then there was a lot of opportunities to grow market share.
For example, Vancouver is a lovely airport and when we had the route from Brisbane to New York we were actually the fastest way to get there and the reason for that is if you travel Sydney to New York via Vancouver you pre-clear US immigration and customs – and in Vancouver, you effectively step onto US soil.
So, you bypass all the hassles of transiting through notorious airports like LA and your luggage does not even need to be collected, it is seamless transit to the US.
How has Air Canada navigated through the pandemic?
Like all airlines, it has been about controlling costs. Cargo has been a big thing for us during this time. The demand for cargo was so big that we had to convert some of our aircraft so we took out all the economy seats to fit in more cargo. We were the first airline to do that. We have put them back in now!
Also, we had to keep our pilots flying to keep their hours up. We are one of the most regulated industries in the world and we have to keep them flying whether it is in aircraft or on flight simulators. Our CEO said at the time: “We’re not just a pizza shop. We can’t just restart the oven.”
Has there been any enhancements that Air Canada has made globally or locally?
We did retire some of our older aircraft, we had twenty-five 767s that we retired, so we now have a much younger fleet. And to help us locally we have worked on partnerships and launched a new loyalty program. We always partnered with Virgin but now Velocity members can earn points when they fly Air Canada. It is important we have a strong partner in Australia.
How important is the trade to Air Canada and do you have a message for them?
Having worked at STA, I know how essential travel agents are and how difficult the job is.
It is not an easy job, so one thing I have been focused on when I came into the Air Canada team was supporting trade, so we do have a dedicated trade support team. We wouldn’t have been where we were in 2020 without the trade who were massive for us.
What comes next? How do you see the next 12-18 months panning out?
What has been great for us in Canada is being one of the first major western countries to open up to the world, so we represent a country with really high vaccination rates.
We want to get back to where we were in 2020 and continue our growth story; we want to get those routes back.
We hope to fly daily from Sydney by the end of March again and then launch other routes after that.
Finally, where’s the first place you want to travel to next?
I would love to get back skiing, which I just took up when I joined Air Canada. I loved it. I would go to any of the ski resorts in Canada, whether its Vancouver or Whistler which is amazing or if you want to off the beat track there’s Big White or Silver Star.
The slopes are often empty too, even when they are busy you can get a whole slope to yourself.
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