5-year timeline for recovery at Gander and St. John’s airports
Garrett Barry · CBC News · May 12, 2021
A pair of reports issued by airports in Newfoundland and Labrador suggest the toughest years are still to come for the industry.
Both the Gander and the St. John’s airports released their annual reports this month, and both suggest revenues won’t fully rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic until at least 2025.
In fact, both airports expect to have larger operating losses in 2021 then they did in 2020, according to projections included in their reports.
“The issue the airport has is not what’s happened in 2020; it’s what’s going to happen between 2021 and 2025, which is when we project … passenger traffic to recover to 2019 levels,” said Reg Wright, CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority.
Even then, the Gander airport is projecting revenue to reach only $6.5 million — significantly less than the $10 million once anticipated for 2020.
The revenue losses mean the suspension of some construction projects and layoffs to some full-time and seasonal workers. The St. John’s Airport Authority reported it laid off 17 per cent of its staff to save $4 million.
Wright said recovery will be slow due to the potential emergence of new coronavirus variants and outbreaks, and the uneven vaccination pace around the world.
But he fears the traffic recovery will take longer in Gander, which may be a victim of a “geographically uneven recovery.” He said airlines, which are also hurting, will refocus their operations in bigger and more profitable centres.
“When they talk about small markets and getting back to them, they’re talking about places like Winnipeg and Halifax. So you can imagine where Gander sits in terms of recovery,” he said.
Feeling the pain
Wright said the withdrawal of several air routes from his airport, including the only routes leaving the province, has led to pain in the surrounding region — and not just for leisure travellers.
He compared it to losing high-speed internet access.
“All these problems suddenly arose; couldn’t get locums in from Halifax, so it affected the delivery of health care,” he said. “Essential workers were adding 7½- to eight-hour return journeys onto their trip west. Core samples — mining sector in central [Newfoundland] is on bust — couldn’t get those out.”
That’s partly why he says the provincial government will need to help prop up the air travel sector.
“My suggestion to them is they are going to have to take an active role in restoring air linkages. And in some cases, they might have to match airport subsidies or incentives for service that is critical to the economic well-being of the province.”
The Gander airport saw about 51,000 passengers through their doors this year, the lowest number on record.
In St. John’s, passenger traffic fell by 75 per cent in 2020, and airport CEO Peter Avery wrote in his report that it remains at a 50-year low.
“This is a devastating reality for an island reliant on air travel,” he wrote.
Both airports have made significant spending cuts a a result of the losses.
In St. John’s, airport management decided to indefinitely suspend the west terminal expansion project, which was set to add gates and baggage carousels.
The Gander Airport, for the first time in its history, shut down one of its two runways over the winter, to save money on maintenance.
However, the airport authority has decided to continue with their international lounge renovations. Wright said it’s being in done in the hope that the airport will be “in a position of growth at some point.”
Tour operator to offer weekly flights from Halifax, Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, St. John’s, Deer Lake and Gander
TORONTO, April 27, 2021 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Sunwing is making it easier for residents of Atlantic Canada to head back to the tropics this winter, with convenient weekly flights from regional gateways across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. Residents of Halifax, Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, St. John’s, Deer Lake and Gander can make their much-anticipated return to paradise with vacation packages to some of the most popular destinations across the Caribbean and Mexico. Flights will begin in January 2022 and run weekly until May 2022.
“We’re thrilled to be returning to Atlantic Canada for another winter season,” commented Andrew Dawson, President of Tour Operations for Sunwing Travel Group. “After a difficult year, we’re sure that Canadians will be eager to return to paradise and enjoy some much-needed rest and relaxation. We’re excited to be able to help them enjoy a frictionless vacation experience with convenient flights from local gateways across the region.”
Residents of Atlantic Canada will be able to choose from a range of vacation packages designed for every travel style and budget. Sun-seekers can Vacation Like a Star™ at the newly-opened Planet Hollywood Beach Resort Cancun and the first-ever Planet Hollywood Adult Scene Cancun, featuring entertainment-themed facilities and authentic Hollywood memorabilia around the resort. Those looking to make the most of their vacation budget can enjoy exclusive RIU®-topia inclusions at Canadian-favourite chain RIU Hotels & Resorts, including the recently renovated Riu Montego Bay. Plus, travellers who book by April 30, 2021 for travel between November 1, 2021 and April 30, 2022 can enjoy flexible booking options with the ability to change their plans with ease and save up to $1,000 per couple during the tour operator’s Freedom 21/22 Sale.
The flight schedule from Halifax, NS will be as follows:
Between Halifax and Cancun, Sundays from January 16, 2022 until May 8, 2022
Between Halifax and Montego Bay, Mondays from January 17, 2022 until May 9, 2022
Between Halifax and Puerto Plata, Tuesdays from January 18, 2022 until May 10, 2022
Between Halifax and Punta Cana, Fridays from January 14, 2022 until May 6, 2022
Between Halifax and Cayo Coco, Wednesdays from January 12, 2022 until May 11, 2022
Between Halifax and Cayo Santa Maria, Thursdays from January 13, 2022 until May 5, 2022
Between Halifax and Holguin, Sundays from January 16, 2022 until May 8, 2022
Between Halifax and Varadero, Thursdays and Saturdays from January 13, 2022 until May 7, 2022
The flight schedule from Moncton, NB will be as follows:
Between Moncton and Cancun, Thursdays from February 10, 2022 until May 5, 2022
Between Moncton and Montego Bay, Sundays from February 13, 2022 until May 8, 2022
Between Moncton and Puerto Plata, Fridays from February 11, 2022 until May 6, 2022
Between Moncton and Punta Cana, Saturdays from February 12, 2022 until May 7, 2022
Between Moncton and Varadero, Fridays from February 11, 2022 until May 6, 2022
The flight schedule from Saint John, NB will be as follows:
Between Saint John and Varadero, Saturdays from February 5, 2022 until May 7, 2022
The flight schedule from Fredericton, NB will be as follows:
Between Fredericton and Cancun, Mondays from February 14, 2022 until May 9, 2022
Between Fredericton and Punta Cana, Wednesdays from February 9, 2022 until May 4, 2022
Between Fredericton and Cayo Coco, Tuesdays from February 15, 2022 until May 10, 2022
The flight schedule from St. John’s, NL will be as follows:
Between St. John’s and Cayo Coco, Thursdays from March 10, 2022 until May 12, 2022
Between St. John’s and Varadero, Saturdays from March 12, 2022 until May 14, 2022
Between St. John’s and Cancun, Fridays from March 11, 2022 until May 13, 2022
Between St. John’s and Montego Bay, Sundays from March 13, 2022 until May 15, 2022
Between St. John’s and Punta Cana, Mondays from March 14, 2022 until May 9, 2022
The flight schedule from Deer Lake and Gander, NL will be as follows:
Between Deer Lake/Gander and Varadero, Tuesdays from March 15, 2022 until May 10, 2022
Between Deer Lake/Gander and Punta Cana, Wednesdays from March 16, 2022 until May 11, 2022
Vacationers can return to these Canadian-favourite destinations and travel with peace of mind knowing that the highest Canadian standards are in place throughout their entire vacation experience with the Safe with Sunwing commitment, created under the advisement of global healthcare leader Medcan.
The largest integrated travel company in North America, Sunwing has more flights to the south than any other leisure carrier with convenient direct service from airports across Canada to popular sun destinations across the U.S.A., Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. This scale enables Sunwing to offer customers exclusive deals at top-rated resorts in the most popular vacation destinations as well as cruise packages and seasonal domestic flight service. Sunwing customers benefit from the assistance of the company’s own knowledgeable destination representatives, who greet them upon arrival and support them throughout their vacation journey. The company supports the communities where it operates through the Sunwing Foundation, a charitable initiative focused on the support and development of youth and humanitarian aid.
SYDNEY, N.S. — Airports around here are hoping the addition of flights by PAL Airlines is a sign of recovery for the aviation industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
More than 50 percent of the workforce has lost their jobs, but employment opportunities are returning as flights take to the air in the coming weeks.
Sydney’s airport will soon see traffic both on the tarmac and at the ticket counter.
PAL Airlines will lift off May 31, offering commercial service to and from the island for the first time in more than three months.
“It’s certainly the news that we have been hoping for and advocating for since the end of 2020 when we found out all commercial service was being suspended from our local airport,” said Kathleen Yurchesyn of the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce.
With the loss of daily flights from Air Canada and WestJet across the Maritimes, people who work in the aviation industry in the region have been left without work.
“Over 50 per cent of our sector is out of work,” said Monette Pasher, the executive director of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association.”I think as we take steps towards recovery and see some of our air services come back, hopefully more people will be re-employed in our industry.”
Fredericton International Airport will also benefit from the Newfoundland-based airline with PAL’s direct flights to Deer Lake and St. John’s, starting next month.
With three weekly direct flights to Ottawa and Halifax beginning in August, it all translates into much-needed employment.
“PAL Airlines will bring in someone and then it creates jobs because you have a ground handler that handles the air service,” said Johanne Gallant, the CEO of Fredericton International Airport.
Gallant says PAL Airlines has provided cautious optimism for an industry paralyzed by the pandemic.
“The Halifax service and the Ottawa service, these are two routes that were served by Air Canada and they said they wouldn’t be renewing that service short-term, so this will definitely fill a need for the region,” Gallant said.
Back in Sydney, the airport will now be home to three commercial carriers when Air Canada and WestJet return in June.
Canadian regional carrier PAL Airlines will expand its network this summer to include 11 new destinations in eastern Canada.
The expansion comes as Canada’s airlines eye a potential summer rebound in air travel demand.
PAL, which operates De Havilland Canada Dash 8 turboprops, will this summer add flights to Halifax and Sydney in Nova Scotia, and to Saint John, Fredericton and Bathurst in New Brunswick, the airline tells FlightGlobal.
The expansion will also see PAL add service to Ottawa in Ontario and Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island. Additionally, it will begin flying to four cities in Quebec: Les Iles de la Madeleine, Gaspe, Baie-Comeau and Val-d’Or.
The Fredericton routes will include flights to Deer Lake, and onward to St John’s, and to Ottawa and Halifax, the Fredericton airport says on 7 April.
WestJet has also announced a planned expansion. That carrier intends to restore flights to several eastern Canadian cities in late June, meaning it would again serve all the cities it did prior to the pandemic.
Flights set to resume to airports across Atlantic Canada and Quebec City as part of the airline’s commitment to a safe restart
CALGARY, AB, March 24, 2021 /CNW/ – WestJet today announced it will restore flights to the communities of Charlottetown, Fredericton, Moncton, Sydney and Quebec City after service was suspended as a result of COVID-19. The reinstatement of service will restore WestJet’s complete network of pre-COVID-19 domestic airports.
“We committed to return to the communities we left, as a result of the pandemic, and we will be restoring flights to these regions in the coming months, of our own volition,” said Ed Sims, WestJet, President and CEO. “These communities have been a crucial factor in our success over our 25 years and it is critical for us to ensure they have access to affordable air service and domestic connectivity to drive their economic recovery.”
Service is set to resume to the five airports WestJet suspended service from in November, beginning June 24, 2021 through to June 30, 2021. In addition, service between St. John’s and Toronto, which was indefinitely suspended in October, will resume effective June 24, 2021. Following a temporary suspension, the restart of service between St. John’s and Halifax will be advanced from June 24, 2021 to May 6, 2021. Full schedule details and restart dates are outlined below.
“Our focus remains on the safe restart of air travel. We ask that federal and provincial governments work with us to provide clarity and certainty to Canadians, including travel policies that support economic recovery and restore jobs,” continued Sims.
Recognizing the investments that WestJet’s travel and tourism partners in the regions need to make to begin to recover from the pandemic, the airline will continue to encourage the Atlantic premiers to advance their efforts to ensure the region is open to Canadians this summer.
“Alongside an accelerated and successful vaccine rollout, we are hopeful that there will be an easing of onerous travel restrictions currently in place,” said Sims. “We look forward to working together to safely reconnect Canadians to the region in the coming months.”
Planned Network Service Resumptions:
Planned restart date
May 6, 2021
June 24, 2021
June 24, 2021
June 26, 2021
June 28, 2021
June 28, 2021
June 30, 2021
In 25 years of serving Canadians, WestJet has cut airfares in half and increased the flying population in Canada to more than 50 per cent. WestJet launched in 1996 with three aircraft, 250 employees and five destinations, growing over the years to more than 180 aircraft, 14,000 employees and more than 100 destinations in 23 countries, pre-pandemic.
Since the start of the pandemic the WestJet Group of Companies has built a layered framework of safety measures to ensure Canadians can continue to travel safely and responsibly through the airline’s Safety Above All hygiene program. During this time, WestJet has maintained its status as one of the top-10 on-time airlines in North America as named by Cirium.
Airline cuts and another lockdown another body blow for an already reeling industry
Conor McCann · CBC News · Posted: Feb 24, 2021
The CEO of the St. John’s International Airport says the loss of WestJet’s St. John’s-to-Halifax route is “depressing” and won’t help Newfoundland and Labrador’s tourism industry rebound this year.
The route cut, which comes into effect March 21, will suspend the three weekly flights between the cities until at least June 24 — and with them, says Peter Avery, will go a sizable chunk of a provincial industry that has been battered since last March.
“A lot of airline staff have been let go, airport authority staff have also been laid off,” said Avery. “So for those that are still hanging on it’s pretty grim.”
Since early 2020 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, air travel has been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the provincial economy, and Avery said the downward trend is set to continue.
“Our numbers in January were down 83 per cent over January of 2019,” said Avery. “We’re only about 20 per cent of the traffic levels where we normally are at.”
Though the airport authority has cut its operating costs by over 20 per cent, he said, there are some expenses and services them remain necessary, forcing the airport to be creative in saving where they can.
“You still have to snow-clear runways and keep the lights on and keep functioning for basic essential services for the province, like medevac and essential cargo,” said Avery. “We’ve closed areas of the terminal building, we changed our snow-clearing regimen, and closed non-essential areas for snow clearing, and even closed runways to try to cut down on our costs.”
Hotels already feeling the pinch
Greg Ivany, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites near the St. John’s airport, expects to see a drop-off in hotel stays with the suspension of the WestJet flights.
“It’s hard to say right now exactly what impact it will have on us as an individual business, but with the tourism industry and travel industry as a whole, for the province it’s a huge blow to have a supplier completely pull out for air access.”
It’s another blow for hotel operations, said Ivany, adding the cancellation could have wide-reaching effects across the province by limiting the options for essential travel.
“We’re mostly seeing essential [travellers], so essential people coming in for medical appointments or, essential corporate for offshore or within Newfoundland itself,” said Ivany. “But we have a lot of clients coming from Labrador for medical appointments.”
Tourism industry set for another difficult year
While the airport authority has been able to buoy itself through operational cuts, Avery said they need to begin looking for alternative measures to bolster both the air travel and tourism industries. They’d like to see public health officials lower barriers but increase precautions.
“For countries and regions like ours that rely so much on the tourist season, you’re seeing a big move towards point-of-entry testing.”
Avery said that extra layer of precaution could salvage the coming tourism season, but the tentative date of June 24 for the return of the WestJet routes is later than he’d like.
“A lot of our tourism industry won’t survive with a year like last year,” said Avery. “What’s going to make things turn around and make airlines change their decisions … is going to be the relaxation of our quarantine on our travel restriction measures.”
As things are going now, said Avery, 2021 will not be a good year for the airport authority, or tourism in general.
“In December when we did our operating budget, we had projected that 2021 would be even worse than 2020. Our revenues were down 60 per cent in 2020, our traffic was down 75 per cent. We predicted our revenues would be down 65 per cent in 2021, and traffic would be down 80 per cent.”
And, Avery noted, those predictions assumed a still-functioning Atlantic bubble, which hasn’t been in effect for months.
While he acknowledged the province’s comparatively rigid containment measures has successfully kept outbreaks at bay, Avery sees the arrival of a new COVID variant as evidence that the status quo may no longer be enough.
“What we really need now is to see measures change through point of entry testing, and even point-of-departure testing, to complement quarantine and hopefully reduce it over time, because that will stimulate demand.”
I fear that you will see some of the smaller businesses end up having to close down, because there’s a lack of vision for how long this is going to last.- Greg Ivany
Between the lack of business and the heightened regulations needed to maintain the industry through the pandemic, Ivany said, many business owners are wondering how much longer they can sustain the added pressure.
“That’s the question of the hour,” he said. “Right now we’re struggling as an industry, and as an individual business, we’re struggling.”
While subsidies from the federal government have helped businesses like the Holiday Inn stay afloat through the worst of the pandemic, Ivany worries that there’s no long-term plan.
“Should this go on much longer, I fear that you will see some of the smaller businesses end up having to close down, because there’s a lack of vision for how long this is going to last,” Ivany said. “And right now there are no long-term relief efforts.”
Airline to halt flights to St. John’s, London, Ont., Lloydminster and Medicine Hat as demand continues to falter from COVID-19
CALGARY, AB, Feb. 18, 2021 /CNW/ – Today, WestJet announced it will temporarily suspend operations to St. John’s, N.L., London, Ont., and Lloydminster and Medicine Hat, Alta., as of March 19, until June 24, 2021.
“We have continued to operate in the face of uncertainty as domestic and international travel restrictions and quarantines have caused demand to plummet,” said Ed Sims, WestJet President and CEO. “Unfortunately, with new and increasingly restrictive policies, we are left once again, with no other option than to suspend service to these communities.”
With today’s announcement, flights between St. John’s and Halifax will be suspended as of March 21, while service between London, Ont., and Toronto will cease on March 22. WestJet Link service from Calgary to Lloydminster will end on March 19, and Calgary to Medicine Hat discontinued as of March 21.
“Our ability to return to markets remains directly correlated to government policies and the prioritization of a domestic travel program,” continued Sims. “As we look ahead to contributing to the economic recovery of Canada, the relationship between testing and quarantine must evolve based on data and science.”
In June 2020, WestJet announced organizational changes through its airport transformation program. As a result of the suspensions, WestJet will be working with newly established third-party service providers in St. John’s and London, Ont., and directly with Pacific Coastal Airlines for affected WestJet Link operations in Lloydminster and Medicine Hat.
WestJet continues to operate at more than a 90 per cent reduction year over year. Guests impacted will be contacted directly regarding their options for travel to and from the regions. Service is set to resume to all communities as of June 24, 2021.
N.L.’s rotational workers face added stress and costs as Air Canada service cuts take effect
Conor McCann · CBC News · Posted: Feb 07, 2021
With Air Canada’s cuts in service to Newfoundland and Labrador taking effect last week, the province’s rotational workers are facing longer commutes, less time with family, and more money coming out of their pocket.
Shawn Hancock has done rotational work since 2007, traveling back and forth from Alberta to his home in Bishop’s Falls.
Even before the new route changes — which included cancelling service to Gander and Goose Bay, as well as axing the long-standing Toronto-to-St. John’s run — pandemic-related restrictions were already causing significant delays, said Hancock, with some supposedly 12-hour commutes taking up to 36 hours.
“Lots of times they overbook a plane and delay us enough so we miss the next flight,” said Hancock. “So this has been going on ever since the pandemic, that lots of times you’re going to be two days getting to work.”
Because of the delays, Hancock said companies in Alberta are now more inclined to hire residents of that province.
“It’s to a point now that most companies in Alberta want to hire locals, due to we’re not dependable anymore,” Hancock said. “We don’t know if we’re going to get there that day for a shift, or it might be two days later.”
Longer commutes and less time home
Among the added expenses of the new route changes is the amount of driving that rotational workers need to do if they live outside areas where service is available.
Hancock previously took the bus to St. John’s and then taxied to the airport. Now, he said, he tries to fly out of Deer Lake.
“The flight leaves five o’clock in the morning, so you got to drive all night,” he said. “Either that, or you’ve got to go over and stay in a hotel.”
Hotel stays add to the cost of travel, and driving at night presents a number of challenges. Between the possibility of moose on the roads and the occasional snowstorm, Hancock said that the drive can be perilous.
“You’re always taking a chance when you’re leaving to go to Deer Lake or St. John’s.”
For rotational workers like Hancock, the added costs and hassle have many looking for work within Newfoundland and Labrador. What he’s finding, however, is that for those who’ve spent time working out west, the opportunities just aren’t there.
“I find that people are looking for jobs on the island, but you send in your resumé with Alberta references on it or whatnot, they don’t really look at you,” he said.
But while Albertan companies look to hire more locals, Hancock says Newfoundland employers are unsure if they can rely on their workforce to stay after restrictions begin to ease up.
“They figure that they might not stay, so why invest in them,” said Hancock. “And we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. I still got a mortgage to pay.”
Added burden of stress and isolation
For rotational workers, it’s not just the financial burdens or the loss of time, but also the emotional strain.
Between the two days of added travel time on either end, as well as the mandatory minimum eight days of isolation when returning home to the island, said Hancock, that doesn’t leave much time for workers to be with their families.
“You’ve got time home, but you’re not allowed to do anything. You can’t see your grandkids or kids or nothing.”
Many worksites in Alberta are also considered high-risk for COVID-19 transmission, and extra precautions are taken to keep workers distanced. Hancock said that often results in feeling just as isolated at work as it does when quarantining at home.
In a statement, Pascale Déry, Air Canada’s director of media relations for Quebec, Eastern Canada and Europe, said the company continues to experience stifled demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the recent 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 trans-border, Caribbean and domestic routes to better reflect expected demand and to reduce cash burn,” said the statement.
Déry said the company is carrying less than 10 per cent of passengers compared to 2019, and circumstances of the pandemic make it difficult to operate normally.
“We regret the impact these difficult decisions have on our customers and affected communities.”
While the statement says it’s premature to talk about future plans, Déry said the company continues to evaluate and adjust its routes as necessary in response to the pandemic and travel restrictions.
One thing that can be done to alleviate some of the added pressures workers face, Hancock said, is increasing the on-and-off duration, so workers have more time with family following their self-isolation. Another, he said, would be to shorten required isolation time from eight days to five.
“There are lots of nights I don’t sleep, just thinking about, you know, what’s the best thing to do,” said Hancock, “because to a point, I’ve got to keep working regardless.”
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.