Normal traffic won’t be back before 2022, caution some industry experts
Rachel Cave · CBC News · Posted: Apr 30, 2020
New Brunswick’s three largest airports are counting up their losses for 2020 and bracing for more lean years to follow.
“We’ve seen a 94 per cent decrease in passenger traffic and a 15 per cent decrease in cargo,” said Moncton airport CEO Bernard Leblanc, who now expects revenue for the year to fall from $20 million to $8.5 million.
“There’s no Air Canada activity and no Porter activity,” said Leblanc, “Sunwing and Air Transat, with their southern destinations, ceased all activities in the mid-March timeframe.”
As a result, Moncton took a hit at what should have been its busiest time.
Normally, March and April combined would bring some 140-thousand passengers through the doors — most of them looking for holiday sun.
Instead, Leblanc says the only service is WestJet, which comes five times a week from Toronto.
The only way to reach New Brunswick by Air Canada, is to catch the one daily flight to Fredericton, where airport CEO Johanne Gallant says passenger traffic has fallen by 70 per cent.
Meanwhile, she says she’s dealing with high fixed costs, such as runway maintenance, which has to be done to the same standard whether one plane is landing or ten.
In Saint John, those fixed costs are running at least $400,000 per month, even though its arrivals and departures board is empty.
CEO Derrick Stanford says no commercial flights means a projected $1.5 million surplus will probably turn into a $1.5 million deficit.
“Seventy per cent of the airport’s revenues come from what’s called aeronautical revenues,” said Stanford.
“That’s passenger spending, whether it’s in the parking lot or the restaurant or the gift store, or what’s called passenger facility fees, which are part of every plane ticket that is sold.”
“So to have no passengers, pretty much equates to a minimum of at least a 70 per cent drop in revenues.”
Charter airline pilot Peter Sonnenberg says it’s unnerving to be in the cockpit and not hear pilot chatter.
“I don’t think I’ve ever flown in this region and heard so little traffic on the radio and I’ve flown in this region my entire life,” said Sonnenberg in a call from Grand Manan.
In more normal times, he says some of the demand to charter his Cessnas and Pipers would come from politicians and business executives who need to get to remote locations and don’t have time to spare.
He says that’s not happening these days. Instead, he says he’s only taking off for medical calls, when patients need to get to hospitals on the mainland.
Medavie says New Brunswick patients still need to be transported by air ambulance, although the cancellation of elective procedures has reduced demand.
Still, between March 16 and April 25, there were 25 air transfers.
It’s another reason why airports like Saint John have to stay open.
No pillows, no blankets, no snacks, no bar
Audrey Gillespie says travelling by air these days feels different and sad.
As an assistant supervisor for house-keeping and sanitization at a gold mine work camp in Nunavut, she’s an essential worker.
Every month, she makes the epic journey from Fredericton to Meadowbank, via Montreal, Val d’Or, and Churchill, Man.
“The airports are empty,”she said.
“You get on the plane and nobody sits beside each other. I think there were 11 people on the plane when I flew the last time.”
“The flight attendant doesn’t come down the aisle with drinks or snacks or anything.”
“And a lot of flights are cancelled. You’re at work and your co-worker says ‘Is your flight still going?’ So you’re constantly checking that your flight hasn’t been cancelled, too.”
“There’s a lot to it, and it’s very scary and when you get home, everything’s closed.”
Gillespie says when she gets home to Fredericton, she has to self-isolate, which means no visits to her son across the street, no hugs for her grandson.
“You just have to respect the rules,” she said.
She must also take her own mask or cloth face-covering and wear it in the airport and for the duration of her flights.
When will traffic come back?
Airports across Canada are being cautioned to expect a slow recovery.
“I think most experts think the industry won’t get to pre-COVID levels before the end of 2021 so I think we’re looking at 2022,” said Angela Gittens from her home office in Montreal.
Gittens is the director general for Airports Council International, whose Canadian division represents the local airport authorities in Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John.
“A lot will depend on how long the virus will last, how long the various restrictions will last and then how long, and how deep the recession will be,” said Gittens.
“This is one of the reasons that we have asked governments to consider relief for airports, for airlines, and the entire aviation ecosystem.”
No plans to close N.B. airports
New Brunswick’s three airport authorities did apply to Ottawa for wage subsidies under the COVID–19 response program that ends in June.
All three CEOs said they’re also looking for ways to defer some capital spending — some projects can be suspended temporarily or scaled back.
There’s no talk of closing any one airport. All three say they can survive until the end of the year.
“The airport does have money in the bank and cash reserves for an emergency,” said Saint John’s Derrick Stanford.
“We can weather the storm for several months but if we’re still having this conversation at Christmas time, I would say we’re looking at a dire situation, and we’d need some injection of money to remain viable.”