Rare uplifting news about air travel

When it comes to news about air travel these days, it’s been nothing but turbulence.

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Opinion

When it comes to news about air travel these days, it’s been nothing but turbulence.

You don’t need to look hard or far for horror stories — of lost baggage, cancelled flights, delayed refunds, take your pick. Post-pandemic recovery for airlines and airports alike has been a very bumpy ride.

That’s why WestJet’s announcement last week of the introduction of a direct flight between Winnipeg and Los Angeles came as a welcome patch of blue sky, so to speak. The 737 service will begin Oct. 31 and will run three times a week, year-round.

The local film industry, in particular, has been clamouring for a direct flight between Winnipeg and L.A. for decades — and, for a long time, it seemed like a far-off pipe dream. Manitoba’s competitive film and TV tax credit — which offers up to a 65 per cent refund on Manitoba labour expenditures — has long made the province attractive to studios. But its geographical location was a hurdle: it took two flights — at least — to get to Winnipeg from Los Angeles or New York City.

ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

John Weatherill Chief Commercial Officer at Westjet speaks to reporters last week after announcing the new Winnipeg to Los Angeles route.

When you’re talking about an on-screen production with many moving parts and people, having to deal with connecting flights isn’t just an inconvenience; it can be a deal-breaker. Take the acclaimed FX television series Fargo — the pilot was shot here, but the network chose Calgary, not Winnipeg, as its series-production stand-in for snowy North Dakota/Minnesota, in part because of flight access.

With this significant logistical barrier lifted, industry types say the YWG-LAX flight could change the game, just as the tax credit did when it was established 25 years ago. Having that direct flight could mean bigger productions shooting in Winnipeg more often.

Manitoba’s film and television industry is already an important piece of the economic puzzle in this province, with a total production volume of $364.5 million last year. More film productions mean more local jobs, and the economic benefits spill over into other industries, such as hospitality.

The new L.A.-direct route comes on the heels of a $4.8 million funding announcement from the province to the Winnipeg Airports Authority, aimed at improving connectivity and increasing direct flights to major destinations. The money comes from Manitoba’s $50-million Pandemic Long-Term Recovery Fund.

While WestJet, in particular, flies direct from Winnipeg to a number of cities — and is bringing back its Phoenix and Montego Bay routes this fall for Manitobans itching to escape the ice and snow — Winnipeg is not really what you’d consider a hub. One cannot fly direct from Winnipeg to most major American cities; only Minneapolis, Las Vegas and now, Los Angeles, have year-round service to and from Winnipeg, with direct flights to Chicago and Denver having been among the pandemic casualties after United Airlines suspended its Winnipeg service. And one cannot fly direct from Winnipeg to anywhere over the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba’s film and television industry had a total production volume of $364.5 million last year.

Perhaps the new Winnipeg-Los Angeles route will help the WAA with its post-pandemic recovery goal of attracting new routes and destinations, as well as reconnecting networks. While more non-stop service would make flying more convenient for Manitobans bit by the travel bug, direct routes will also bring more economic opportunities to the province — not all business is done via Zoom, after all — as well as greater tourism opportunities.

We can market and slogan Winnipeg and Manitoba all we want, but if it’s not easy to get here, many people won’t come unless they have to.

Greater air connectivity can help put Winnipeg, in very significant ways, back on the map.

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