It’s always been a weird dance between Air Canada and United. For two decades,the airlines have had a joint venture, but it has only covered Transatlantic travel. Now, a new joint venture that will cover Transborder travel is finally happening. It’s remarkable that it took this long.
It was the early 2000s when United entered into its first Transatlantic joint venture. Most people know it involved Lufthansa (eventually including Lufthansa Group subsidiaries Austrian, Brussels, Eurowings, and SWISS), but many overlook that it also includes Air Canada. That means for the last 20 years, these airlines have been able to coordinate schedules and jointly set fares for all travelers heading over the Atlantic.
With United and Lufthansa Group, this was easy, because the overlap between the two airlines was all included in the joint venture. But between United and Air Canada, that wasn’t the case. Think about it this way. If someone bought a ticket on United 5791 from Denver to Toronto and then connected to Air Canada 872 to Paris, that fell under the joint venture. But if someone bought a ticket on United 5791 from Denver to Toronto and then connected to Air Canada 420 on to Montreal, then it was not part of the deal.
This isn’t just a one-off. There are a massive number of flights between the two airlines over the border. Here’s a look at this summer’s route map:
Air Canada & United Canada – Continental US Routes July 2022
United only flies from its hubs into larger Canadian cities, but Air Canada flies from its hubs to United hubs and much, much deeper into secondary markets. Don’t let United’s relatively sparse route map fool you, however. United is the second largest airline in the market this July, even ahead of WestJet.
Air Canada this July has just over 45 percent of seats in the market. United follows with nearly 12 percent. The combined 57 percent is a lot, but apparently the two airlines are already allowed to coordinate thanks to the antitrust immunity they have from their Transatlantic joint venture, so this should be an easy implementation now that they’ve apparently agreed on commercial terms.
On the one hand, this will have some good benefits for travelers. For example, it should fix some scheduling oddities. Looking at Dulles to Toronto this August, Air Canada has a flight at 6:30am, 11:20am, and 6:10pm. Instead of filling in the empty spots, however, United has scheduled flights at 12:30pm and 5:06pm, not far off the existing Air Canada flights. Now the two will coordinate and can likely provide greater coverage during the day.
It will also apparently allow them to expand their codeshare. The current setup has some strange outcomes right now. From Newark to Toronto, as an example, Air Canada has 6 flights of its own and codeshares on 1 United flight. Meanwhile, United has 4 flights of its own and codeshares on 3 of Air Canada’s. Travelers don’t get the full picture of options when looking at just one airline, even though they might think otherwise since there is some codesharing.
Even on flights where there is overlap, there can be enormous fare differences. When I wrote this on Saturday, I looked up the 6:30am flight from Dulles to Toronto on August 10. It’s an Air Canada flight, and you can get a ticket for as little as $237.13 if you buy through Air Canada.
But if you go to United? It’s $904.70.
This semi-relationship is confusing and makes it tougher for some travelers to understand all their options. It also means that travelers can buy tickets from their preferred airline and be treated the same either way. Anyone who bought a ticket through Air Canada before the pandemic only to have Air Canada flout US law and not allow refunds for many, many months would probably be thrilled to buy that ticket through United instead.
The downside, of course, is that competition is limited. But how much are they actually competing today? When you’re already in a joint venture in one geographic area and not in another, it gets really tough to keep separate. (And yes, I feel the similarly about American/JetBlue even though it’s a different situation.)
It seems to me that there is likely more benefit to having them work together more closely and completely compared to the sort-of-half-partnership they have today in the Transborder market.