General aviation

Opinion: After eight months of waiting, a four paragraph response

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Aviation leaders pleaded for help in May, “time is of the essence,” they said. After eight months of waiting, they finally got a response Monday. Was it worth the wait?

The departures area at Vancouver International Airport (Brett Ballah).

After waiting eight and a half months, the leaders of Canada’s most important aviation organizations finally have a response to their desperate plea for help. It comes in the form of a four-paragraph letter from Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Industry, Science, and Innovation. Five paragraphs, if you count the salutation. And it sheds new light on the federal government’s willingness to support an industry in dire straights.

The heads of 14 aviation organizations wrote to the Prime Minister and three ministers – including Bains – on May 7. They represent airports, airlines, pilots, helicopters, maintenance organizations, manufacturers, and five provincial and territorial aviation organizations. They outlined 10 steps they said would help bolster the Canadian economy.

“Time is of the essence,” they wrote in the spring, “and our ability to respond effectively will translate to how quickly Canadians and our economy get moving again.”

Bains sent his response Monday. It is addressed to Daniel-Robert Gooch of the Canadian Airports Council, Mike McNaney of the National Airlines Council of Canada, and John McKenna, head of the the Air Transport Association. A copy was obtained by Western Aviation News. The minister’s office did not reply to e-mails seeking to verify the letter’s authenticity or further comment.

“Thank you for your correspondence regarding the significant impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s airports and commercial airlines,” Bains opened. “I sincerely regret the delay in replying to you.”

Here, the minister shows a knack for understatement. Significant impact is one way of describing what’s happened to aviation over the past nine months. Devastation is another.

Industry decimation

COVID-19 has decimated the aviation industry. The industry is handling between 10 and 15% of the number of people who flew last year.

Government policies contribute to the pain. Canada still bars most non-citizens. There’s no national strategy on COVID testing at airports. People arriving on international flights have to quarantine for two weeks (with the exception of some passengers headed for Alberta).

And just as traffic shows a small uptick, it can turn sour in a heartbeat. Bains’ response came the day after the government of Canada barred flights from London over concerns of a new strain of coronavirus. The minister made no mention of this latest setback.

“I appreciate receiving your concerns and ideas, which have assisted the Government of Canada as it implements emergency support measures to ensure the health and economic stability of Canadian individuals and businesses,” the minister continued in his second paragraph.

Let’s look at what the coalition of aviation organizations asked for in May compared to federal action:

What the industry asked for in MayWhat the government has done since then
An extension to the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy.Wage subsidies have been extended to June 2021. All airlines and the largest airports have taken advantage of the subsidy. The government said it has provided $1.4 billion in wage subsidies to the industry.
Financial support for all of Canada’s air operators, airports, maintenance, repair and overhaul organizations.The government announced millions in aid in the Fall Economic Statement.
It includes $75 million to work with provinces to ensure access to remote communities.
It also pledges $186 million over two years to fund capital projects at a host of small airports.
Ensure that all airports, regardless of ownership model, are eligible for all support programs.Details of financial help have not been revealed. Municipal airports are not eligible for many supports.
A suspension of all federal excise and carbon taxes on jet fuel and av gas.No action.
Federal financial assistance for air navigation charges incurred for flights flown during this
pandemic period.
Airport fees have risen, raising concerns higher airfares will suppress aviation's recovery.
A suspension of passenger Air Traveller Security Charges for flights flown during this pandemic period.No action.
Extended rent relief for National Airport Systems airports.Rents for airports serving less than 1 million passengers have been suspended for three years.
Rents for airports serving 1-10 million have been forgiven in 2021.
Next year's rent for the four largest airports is deferred for three years.
Extend the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program to all airports,
regardless of ownership model.
Municipalities and local governments, which own the lion's share of airports in Canada, are not eligible.
Subsidies to support upskilling and reskilling of our workforce.Ottawa pledged $1.5 billion in retraining funds to workers in hard-hit industries, including transportation.
An extension of the deferrals on current regulatory implementation and consultation processes
that are not related to the pandemic
No evidence.

Essential engagement

“Please be assured that the federal government continues to engage with industry leaders, associations, and individual citizens from across the country to address the impacts of COVID‑19,” Bains wrote. “Your ongoing engagement is essential as we continue to examine support measures and plan a safe and sustainable recovery for Canadians and for Canada’s economy during these challenging times.”

Those are encouraging words. The reality is confusion and uncertainty.

In early November, the Transport Minister announced he would start talks with airlines about financial aid. Marc Garneau has made overtures since then. But earlier this month, John McKenna told a Commons committee he was still waiting for a response to numerous missives he’s sent to federal ministers. What’s unusual about this is McKenna represents regional airlines. The government has made a lot of noise about protecting air service to regional centres.

“We fear two things from an airline perspective,” said McKenna in early December. “The first is that the government is simply waiting to see which air carriers survive and perhaps step in to help reestablish lost services, but at a great cost. Our other fear is that government will choose to help only the two largest carriers.”

And just last week, Transat chief executive Jean-Marc Eustache expressed incredulity at the government’s handling of the aviation crisis. He told analysts that he was still waiting for ministers to reach out and ask him what his airline needed to survive.

“Where is the Canadian government?” he asked rhetorically. “I have to say, it is impossible to comprehend.”

Worth the wait?

In the minister’s final paragraph, he provides access to ways businesses can provide and receive help.

“For your reference, information on the government’s COVID-19 action plan and how to get involved is available here,” wrote the minister.

This link is to a page where businesses can sign up to help the government combat COVID-19. “My business wants to help,” reads a prominent button on the page. It leads to an online form where a company can detail its ability to manufacture and supply personal protective equipment.

Help is exactly what the aviation organizations offered – and asked for – back in May.

“You may also find it useful to review the list of government supports on the Government of Canada’s COVID‑19 Economic Response Plan webpage,” the minister concluded.

It’s worth following this link, if only to see what aviation leaders are up against. There are, to be fair, good initiatives listed.

But I challenge you to work out a plan based on that information. Give it a try. Set a budget for next year based on that information. The next month. The next week. It’s simply not possible.

Aviation leaders spent eight and half months waiting for a response from government. You’ve now read the entirety of the minister’s reply. Was it worth the wait?

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