By Steve McKinley, Halifax Bureau ~ Wed., Jan. 20, 2021
We are in the depths of it right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted and locked down our lives. But as a vaccination effort continues across Canada, there is hope that, in the months ahead, things will get better, and that, eventually, we will emerge from this crisis. With an eye to that light at the end of our tunnel, the Star is beginning a new series — The Long Road Back. We will look at different parts of our world, our society and our lives, and consider how they may emerge from this ordeal forever changed. Because we have, in some ways, already started our long road back to whatever our new normal will be.
Every two weeks, on a Wednesday, Howell would leave St. John’s, N.L., and fly to Toronto. There he’d catch a flight to Fort McMurray, drive 50 kilometres southeast to Anzac, Alta., get a good night’s sleep and get up Thursday morning to work as a power engineer at an oil facility.
That commute has become a lot more complicated lately, after the latest round of airline service reductions to Newfoundland — and the rest of Atlantic Canada.
This last trip, Howell had to fly St. John’s to Halifax to Toronto to Calgary to Fort McMurray. The route added another seven to eight hours to a trip that already took nine or 10, he said.
And, in order to make his flights, he had to leave home a day earlier, on the Tuesday — and spend an extra day on-site in Anzac — to be able to get to work on time.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “With the flights cut, it’s a lot longer travelling. You’ve got to get up earlier. You lose a day home flying up, and 12 hours flying back, like a full day which you’re not paid for. (There’s) fatigue, for sure.”
Over the past 10 months, both domestic carriers, Air Canada and WestJet, citing low travel demand due to COVID-19 restrictions, have slashed passenger-carrying capacity and workforce across the country. The service cuts are worrisome to those in a region where connections to the rest of the country have not always been easy.
In pre-COVID times, Atlantic Canada had flights connecting it to 130 destinations. After this latest round of cuts, there are now 29. Of those, only nine flights connect Atlantic Canada to the rest of the country.
St. John’s, N.L., which used to have flights to Toronto 11 times daily, will, as of Jan. 23, have none. Its flights outside of Atlantic Canada have been reduced to a single flight per day to Montreal. The Charlottetown airport now runs only a single daily flight to Montreal. In Saint John, N.B., and in Sydney, N.S., all flights have been suspended. And as of Jan. 23, there will be no passenger flights out of Fredericton’s airport either.
As a net result, some argue, Atlantic Canada is at risk of being largely cut off from the rest of the country.
The cuts are already being keenly felt by rotational workers such as Howell. Time is precious for workers coming home to Newfoundland — the first seven days of Howell’s 14 at home are spent self-isolating. Those extra days lost in transit are days he could be spending with his one-and-a-half-year-old niece and a nephew, born in March, who he has barely been able to see.
The cuts are also concerning because many believe the region’s ability to bounce back economically after COVID-19 depends on seamless access to the rest of the country. The worry is that, once travel restrictions are eased, the suspended routes may take a long time to be re-established — if, in fact, they are re-established at all.
“When we get to the other side, where people want to move again, what kind of connectivity are we going to have as a region?” asked Monette Pasher, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, which represents the 12 commercial airports in the region.
“We can’t really turn things on a dime. It took us about 10 years to get to the route network that we had pre-COVID.”
This time last year, said Pasher, there were new routes being announced to Western Canada; there were flights being planned to the U.K. and to the rest of Europe; and there was the prospect of routes from new low-cost carriers such as Swoop and Flair.
Today, all those plans are gone; the timetable for the return of routes is uncertain.
And uncertainty is something that businesses don’t like.
Sheri Somerville, CEO of the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, cites some sobering figures: a $3-billion loss to the tourism industry in Atlantic Canada in 2020, part of a $12-billion overall loss in the region’s six core industries.
Recovering from those kinds of economic losses will take time, said Somerville, and the lack of efficient air transport service will extend that time.
“One thing that we know for sure is reducing air service, or suspending air service, creates uncertainty,” she said.
“Consumer confidence is not a light switch that you can just turn on. It’s more like a dimmer switch; it’s going to come on slowly. So yes, people are eager to get back to normal. But we don’t know what that new normal is going to be like. So, businesses don’t know what to plan for.”
This month, Somerville, on behalf of the chamber, sent an open letter to four federal ministers and the premiers of all the Atlantic provinces, calling on those governments to provide financial support for air carriers and airports, and to reduce some of that uncertainty by communicating vaccination plans and economic recovery plans.
“We are asking for your governments’ support and leadership to ensure that Atlantic Canadians are not permanently severed from the rest of Canada due to the significantly impaired operations of national airlines and the airports serving our region,” she wrote.
“To be forthright, we cannot grow our population, increase our tax base, and attract investment if people and businesses cannot efficiently and cost-effectively access this region.”
While Air Canada did not respond to questions about what kind of aid it might be looking for from the government, it did point a finger at COVID-19 and government travel restrictions and self-isolation requirements in its decision to suspend flights.
“With the latest travel restrictions, we have seen an immediate impact to our close-in bookings and have made the difficult but necessary decision to further adjust our schedule and rationalize our transborder, Caribbean and domestic routes to better reflect expected demand and to reduce cash burn,” wrote Air Canada spokesperson Pascale Déry in an emailed statement.
Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu has previously said, speaking generally, that air travel won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until as late as 2025.
The federal government, for its part, says it’s open to supporting the airlines, but has stressed that there will be caveats attached.
“We know that major airlines need specific support and that’s why the Government of Canada is also engaging with Canada’s major air carriers regarding potential options for financial assistance to the Canadian airline industry,” said Transport Canada spokesperson Allison St-Jean in an email.
“Discussions about taxpayer support for the airlines will need to address refunds for cancelled flights as well as the reinstatement of regional routes in Canada.”
But not everyone is optimistic that those regional flights will be reinstated.
When it comes time to rethink those flights, airlines will most certainly be looking at the bottom line, says Herb Emery, the Vaughn Chair in regional economics at University of New Brunswick.
He said the costs of re-establishing those routes — including personnel and running unprofitable flights until traffic builds back up — might prompt airlines to consider centralizing flights in fewer airports.
“Coming back, you have to look at the fixed costs of restarting those routes. And so Air Canada and WestJet could be looking at: ‘Well, we’ve still got service in Halifax, we’ve still got service in Moncton. We can just serve the area by expanding our frequency of flights in and out.”
That might work well for the airlines, but for Atlantic Canada travellers, it means many of them will have to travel hours to get to the nearest airport with a flight that will take them to the rest of Canada.
If those suspended flights are to be re-established, said Emery, it will likely require some form of government intervention.
What might that look like? In what he calls the Ticketmaster model, the government might purchase a certain number of seats on lower-revenue routes. That would guarantee airlines a certain amount of revenue, and the government would sell off the seats as demand grew. If the demand was strong, those tickets might be sold for a higher price than they were purchased.
It’s just one of the ideas being floated to revive a flagging industry when the time comes.
For those such as Howell, who have to travel frequently, recovering the lost flights is vital. The cuts have translated into time lost with his niece and nephew. And with his non-quarantine time in Newfoundland already at a premium, he said, any lost time is too much.
Steve McKinley is a Halifax-based reporter for the Star.
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