Canadian airports and cities

Crisis deepens at regional airports

Small airports warn they are on the brink of collapse.

Fees could rise 60% at regional airports as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

regional airport crisis
Grande Prairie Airport (photo: Twitter/@gpairport).

Canada’s regional airports warn they are on the brink of financial collapse as a result of the pandemic-induced crisis in aviation. The situation is so bad, many are planning to close runways for the winter and lay off staff, just to make ends meet.

That’s on top of projected fee increases up to 60% that will inevitably be passed on to passengers.

“These are huge,” said Brian Grant in an interview. He’s the Chief Executive Officer of the Grande Prairie Airport Commission and Chair of the Regional Community Airports of Canada. “For us, even our airport improvement fee will have to go from pretty much $25 to $35.”

The RCAC sounded the alarm Tuesday, pleading for government help as its members run out of cash. The RCAC represents 50 member airports serving small communities. Most of them are hundreds of kilometres from the closest international airport.

In Grande Prairie, passenger numbers have dwindled from about 35,000 a month last year to 8,500 this August. And that was the high point. It’s gone down from there.

“A lot of these airports were not really breaking even beforehand, but they were getting some support from their municipalities,” said Grant. “The municipalities are strapped too. So now it’s becoming a choice of roads, bridges, facilities versus airport.”

Grant points to airports such as North Bay, Ontario and Smithers, British Columbia as some of the hardest hit. They lost all mainline passenger services during the pandemic, and there’s no telling when they might come back. “So they’re the ones that are basically living off whatever municipal scraps they can get,” he said.

We can’t do it alone

With few exceptions, airports in Canada rely on passengers for the majority of their revenues. That includes landing fees charged to airlines, airport improvement fees charged to passengers, and parking fees levied on vehicles.

With people deciding not to fly because of the pandemic, those revenues have been decimated.

Take, for example, the Winnipeg Airport Authority, which is not an RCAC member. WAA reported Tuesday that traffic was down 85% through the third quarter. Between July and September, an average of 2,051 people a day passed through the airport. That compares with 13,273 last year.

Financially, that means the airport earned $14.3 million in revenues in three months. Compare that to the $36.1 million the airport earned in the same period last year.

“Winnipeg Richardson International Airport will be essential to this region’s economic recovery, but we can’t do it alone,” said airport President and Chief Executive Officer Barry Rempel. “Government support is required to ensure the airport can continue to provide essential services for our community in the future.”

Demanding action

The chorus of voices demanding government help for the industry has been growing. Last week, hundreds of laid off airline staff staged a protest in Ottawa to demand help. Unions plan more protests this week in Toronto and Montreal.

Ottawa has talked of the need to help regional aviation, but so far there’s been no announcement.

The RCAC says regional airports need $180 million in subsidies to keep operating at last year’s levels. Without it, more layoffs are likely.

“We’ve laid off a number of employees,” said Grant. “We’re probably looking at another round of maybe 30% of our employees. So 2021 is looking pretty ugly.”

There isn’t a lot of fat to cut. In Grande Prairie, a 30% cut means you likely won’t find a customer service person if you have a question. And bring food with you to the airport – the restaurant is closing for the winter.

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