Canadian airports and cities

Plexiglass, masks and cleaning, airports grapple with travel’s slow restart

The lack of national standards may be slowing the restart of Canadian aviation

The apron at Edmonton International Airport June 10, 2020 (photo: Twitter/@MaybeeSteve).

If there is a glimmer of hope in Canadian aviation, perhaps it is most evident in Vancouver, where a slow emergence from the depths of the pandemic is starting to take shape.

“We are seeing about a 96% decline right now,” said Robyn McVicker, the Vice President of Maintenance and Operations at Vancouver International Airport. “I’m thrilled to say that for the last two weeks, we’ve doubled our numbers each week. So we are really seeing traffic start to come back. It’s small numbers, but we’re really excited about it. You can feel the difference in the terminals today.”

It’s finally a bit of good news for an industry that has watched its fortunes plummet since mid-March.

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“Our airports are now forecasting we will only see maybe 43% [of last year’s total] or about 69 million passengers for all of 2020,” said Daniel-Robert Gooch, President of the Canadian Airports Council. “It sounds crazy to say, but 50% of our travellers from last year would be a good news story for us.”

The airport executives shared their observations Wednesday at an online session hosted by the Global Business Travel Association. Nancy Tudorache, the GBTA’s Regional Vice President for Canada said her organization doesn’t see business air travel pick up until at least the fall.

Airlines have projected that domestic travel will recover first, led by people flying to see their friends and family. The challenge, the airport executives agree, is that despite their cooperation, Canada does not have one single national recovery plan, but a series of local plans led by provincial and territorial health authorities. That has led to a high level of uncertainty.

“Let’s be honest, nobody knows,” said McVicker. “None of us truly knows what the bounce back from the airlines are going to be simply because the travel restrictions and that secondary component of the quarantine orders that are place not only by the federal government but by each provincial government separately.”

“In fact we’re a little concerned right now that the recovery might be more protracted in Canada because we have not yet seen the reopening of travel markets to the extent that we are seeing in other parts of the world,” said Gooch.

“Our first goal as a sector is to restore and reinforce public confidence in air travel,” he said. “But to achieve that goal, we need federal coordination and leadership on national standards for the safe restart of domestic and international air travel.”

“We need federal coordination and leadership on national standards for the safe restart of domestic and international air travel.”

And therein lies the rub for aviation. It’s all well and good for an airport or even a whole province to tame the coronavirus pandemic, but unless passengers feel their entire journey is safe, chances are they won’t go.

“It’s really about getting people comfortable with flying,” said Steve Maybee, Edmonton International Airport’s Vice President of Operations and Infrastructure. “It’s really around passenger, traveller confidence.”

Airports have stepped up with more cleaning, installing plexiglass at key points, requiring employees and passengers to wear masks, and limiting access to the terminal. “Our entire airport team has never worked so hard for so few passengers,” said McVicker.

Physical distancing has been a big part of the public health message, and airports have responded by trying to space out their queuing areas. It has worked while passenger numbers are low, but it’s not a long-term solution.

“The reality is we have physical distancing at the airport and we’re doing everything we can to maintain it,” said McVicker. “But as the numbers start to come back, it’s not really possible.” She said a recent departure of an Airbus A380 from Vancouver led to a lineup for check-in one kilometre long.

“We actually have the time right now to think about how do we make our processed more efficient,” she said.

McVicker said Vancouver International is preparing to launch a programmed called YVR Take Care, focussed on giving passengers information about their journey, end to end.

“This programme is really about the now,” she said. “We believe that there will be another element of health screening, probably in six months when a rapid test becomes available. But until that comes on, we need to do something that creates confidence.”


Not everything airports do will be visible to passengers, said Dwayne Macintosh, Director of Safety and Security at Toronto International Airport. Technologies such as ultraviolet disinfection devices and air cleaners are being deployed behind the scenes.

“So you know your safety is taken care of and so is your health,” he said. “There’s a lot of other things that you’re not going to see, but they are there.”

“If there’s one positive out of this whole crisis,” said Edmonton International’s Maybee, “it’s that it’s expedited the use and ability to move some of this technology forward.

“A passenger, business or otherwise, is going to see a lot of change in the next six to 12 months.”

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