* Air Canada load factor 81.5 pct vs. 79.5 pct
* WestJet load factor 86.2 pct, vs. 84.8 pct
* Porter up 10.2 points at 59.8 pct
April 4 (Reuters) - Canada’s airlines flew fuller planes in March, a busy travel month in Canada, despite labor unrest at Air Canada and higher fares at rival WestJet Airlines
Air Canada’s load factor - the percentage of available seats filled with paying customers - rose to 81.5 percent last month, from 79.5 percent last year. Traffic rose 4.8 percent, while capacity increased by only 2.2 percent.
The airline’s services were disrupted in March when its maintenance workers staged a brief wildcat strike, shortly after the federal government stepped in to avert a simultaneous strike and lock-out of maintenance workers and pilots respectively.
WestJet, Canada’s No. 2 airline, said its load factor rose to 86.2 percent last month from 84.8 percent in March 2011, as demand remained strong despite fare increases.
The airline flew nearly 104,000 more passengers this March as a 9 percent increase in traffic across its routes outflanked a 7 percent rise in capacity.
“We are very pleased with the market strength we’ve seen in March and system-wide demand remains healthy,” WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky said in a statement.
“The market has absorbed our growth and increased fare levels have helped offset higher fuel costs.”
March is typically a strong travel month as schools close for a week or two for spring break.
Shares of Calgary, Alberta-based WestJet closed up 2.0 percent at C$13.62 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Wednesday. Air Canada, which reported traffic after the close, fell 1.1 percent to C$0.90.
Privately owned regional airline Porter said it set a record March load factor of 59.8 percent in March, up 10.2 points on the year.
The rise comes on the back of its development of seasonal leisure routes and a passenger base that travels year-round for business, Porter CEO Robert Deluce said.