It will be years before passenger numbers return to what they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, says the head of Ottawa International Airport.
“I believe it will take years to build our passenger numbers back to 2019 levels,” said Mark Laroche, Ottawa International’s President and Chief Executive Officer in a note published Friday. “I cannot realistically promise that all 45 destinations served by YOW before the pandemic will return quickly, including our European air service.”
Laroche said Lufthansa will not operate its Frankfurt service as planned, for example.
The airport authority has responded by cutting $35 million in capital spending. The airport is in the midst of a multi-million “airport enhancement” including moving pre-board screening, new concessions, an airport train station, and a new airport hotel.
Laroche also said a planned roll out of new concessions will take significantly longer than the originally planned two years.
The airport has also cut labour costs by cutting hours and tried to avoid layoffs and prioritized cleaning of high touch surfaces, kiosks and toilets.
More than 45,000 people have been laid off in Canadian aviation, according to an analysis by Western Aviation News though the real figure is likely far higher.
Laroche painted a bleak picture of terminal operations as passengers heed government warnings to control the spread of COVID-19 by staying home.
“A walk through the terminal at 6 a.m. would reveal closed restaurants, food outlets, storefronts, and few passengers or staff present at a time when we would typically see thousands of people moving about,” he said.
“Some flights remain on the schedule and either fly virtually empty or are simply cancelled. As an example, on March 31st, we had 13 departures with approximately 430 passengers registered – some of whom may not have actually travelled. This number is in contrast to a typical 7,000 departing passengers per day volume.”
The cratering of passenger demand also means the main source of revenue for airports has dried up. The federal government has announced it would cancel rent payments the country’s largest airports have to pay for their land, though Larouche said the move, while a good gesture, is largely empty.
“It is essential to clarify that the rent relief announced by the federal government earlier this week is a positive gesture,” Laroche wrote. “It bears explaining, however, that airport rent is calculated as a percentage of gross revenue therefore our rent payment for March, April and May would have been almost nil and would be significantly reduced for the remainder of the year.
“Our revenues have all but disappeared, meaning that our rent obligation for 2020 would have been minimal.”
We donated 1200 #N95 masks to community partners @OttawaCity & @ville_gatineau. Protecting #FirstResponders & healthcare heroes is critical to get us through the #COVID19Pandemic. We encourage others who can spare PPE to do so #InItTogether #COVID19 #YOW #OttCity #SharingIsCaring pic.twitter.com/w1wKbQMm6a— Ottawa Airport (@FlyYOW) April 3, 2020
Canada’s airports are forecast to lose up to $2.2 billion this year as a result of the pandemic, and if it the collapse in travel continues, the impact could be felt for years to come. The largest airports in Canada are run by local airport authorities that pay for operations, maintenance, and upgrades through fees that ultimately rely on passenger numbers.
“There is a lot more work to do if our airport is to return to its role as significant economic generators in the National Capital Region,” wrote Laroche.
He is calling on governments to support airports through the crisis and support tourism promotion once the pandemic eases.