* WestJet load factor rises 1.9 points to 83.8 pct
* Air Canada load factor up 1.4 points to 82.1 pct
* Both carriers’ revenue miles rise about 10 pct (Updates with Air Canada statistics)
CALGARY, Alberta, April 6 (Reuters) - Air Canada ACa.TO and WestJet Airlines Ltd (WJA.TO) said on Tuesday that passenger levels raced higher in March, with customers flocking to the top two Canadian airlines as pressure from the economic downturn eased.
WestJet, the country’s second-largest carrier, said its March load factor, a measure of how full its flights to destinations in Canada, the United States and elsewhere were during the month, rose 1.9 percentage points from March 2009 to 83.8 percent, even with a big rise in its capacity.
The Calgary-based airline said it flew 94,000 more passengers last month compared with the year-earlier period, as the economy strengthened.
Capacity, measured in available seat miles, rose 7.4 percent to 1.63 billion as it increased space to southern vacation destinations.
However, that rise was outmatched by an increase in customers, measured in revenue passenger miles, which rose 10 percent to 1.37 billion from 1.25 billion in March 2009.
“WestJet’s increased capacity ... (was) deployed into southern markets and benefited from WestJet’s strong brand and strengthening sales channels,” Gregg Saretsky, WestJet’s recently appointed chief executive, said in a statement.
“We continue to draw from our entire route network to fill our southbound aircraft with a healthy mix of WestJet and WestJet Vacations guests,” Saretsky said.
The company said the rise in traffic was encouraging but it still expects a decline in revenue per available seat mile of up to 3 percent for the first quarter of the year.
For its part, Air Canada, the country’s largest airline, said its load factor was 82.1 percent in March, up 1.4 percentage points from March 2009.
Traffic jumped 9.6 percent to 4.23 billion revenue passenger miles as capacity climbed 7.7 percent to 5.16 billion available seat miles.
Chief Executive Calin Rovinescu said he was encouraged that traffic rose in domestic, transborder and international segments, the latter by a hefty 14.4 percent.
“We continue to manage and deploy our capacity effectively and retain the loyalty of our customers while attracting new ones,” Rovinescu said in a statement.
Air Canada’s A-series shares rose 5 Canadian cents, or 2 percent to C$2.59 on the Toronto Stock Exchange, representing a doubling of the stock price of the Montreal-based company since the start of 2010.
WestJet slipped 3 Canadian cents to C$13.51, a nearly 9 percent gain this year.
$1=$1 Canadian Reporting by Scott Haggett and Jeffrey Jones; editing by Rob Wilson