Air Canada

Atlantic airports to detail COVID’s brutal beating

Just 29 routes remain in four Atlantic provinces

Airport executives to tell Commons Transport Committee Atlantic Canadians are set up to become second-class citizens

Atlantic airports brutal beating
The apron at Saint John Airport has sat vacant, waiting for its next commercial flight, since January 11, 2021 (Facebook/Saint John Airport).

Executives from Atlantic Canadian airports will tell a Commons committee Thursday they have taken a “brutal beating” because of COVID-19.

“We are impacted more than anywhere else in the country,” said Saint John Airport chief executive Derrick Stanford. “The focus is the fact that we’ve been hit really, really hard.”

Saint John hasn’t had a single commercial flight since January 11, when Air Canada withdrew service. Others have suffered the same fate. Gander, once a hub for trans-Atlantic flights, saw the end of commercial service for the first time since 1942. Sidney, Nova Scotia, where the airport is named for the pilot of Canada’s first flight, is silent. Fredericton, New Brunswick is the only provincial capital without scheduled air service. The list goes on.

Airlines have blamed national and provincial travel restrictions for the withdrawal. Governments in Atlantic Canada, in particular, have taken a hard line against travel in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“Withdrawing air service from Atlantic Canada is like cancelling bus routes to poor neighbourhoods,” said Stanford, who is also the President of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association. “We’re already somewhat disadvantaged by our geographic location, especially folks on an island like Cape Breton or Newfoundland. And Canada’s a big country. And it’s sparsely populated and covers a lot of square miles. What really holds Canada together is air access. And Atlantic Canada had enjoyed some fantastic air access. We felt very much part of Canada.”

Set up to become second-class citizens

“When you see withdrawal of service at the pace it’s happened,” said Stanford, “Atlantic Canada is set up to become a second-class citizen and unable to fully participate in the recovery and maybe the ongoing Canadian economy if this doesn’t turn around.”

Who, the argument goes, wants to set up shop when you have to drive two hours to catch a flight? Or in the case of Sidney, almost five hours to Halifax?

“You’ve got the Irving empire is all headquartered here. And Moosehead beer, and Crosby’s Molasses, and the world’s largest salmon farm in Cooke Aquaculture,” he said. “The only way that they’re allowed to have these multi-billion dollar corporations here is access to safe, modern, reliable air transportation.”

Of the airports that have reported 2020 passenger figures, the two most heavily impacted are in Atlantic Canada. Halifax saw 76% fewer passengers in 2020 compared to 2019. Charlottetown reported Wednesday traffic was down a staggering 86% year over year.

What’s worse, there’s no clear indication when service will return, the airports will tell Members of Parliament.

“Air Canada’s made it very clear that that’s only contingent on the easing of restrictions, the rollout of the vaccine, and the Canada-U.S. border closure,” said Stanford. “I keep thinking we’re at the bottom of this, but every day, especially in January, it seems like the bottom is the next day every day this month.”

Airport20192020% change
Edmonton7,657,0722,294,057-70.0
Kelowna2,032,019737,447-63.7
Ottawa5,106,4871,363,512-73.3
Prince George496,714176,994-64.4
Victoria1,924,385574,837-70.1
Halifax4,188,443995,426-76.2
Charlottetown383,18371,480-81.3
Saskatoon1,488,810462,557-68.9
Kamloops351,586123,657-64.8
Calgary17,957,7805,675,483-68.4
Toronto50,496,20113,307,077-73.6
Montreal20,305,1065,426,862-73.3
Vancouver26,379,8707,300,287-72.3

Help slow to arrive

In Canada, the largest airports earn their revenues from passengers and the fees they generate. So the drop in passenger numbers also devastates airport finances.

Stanford points out his airport’s only revenues right now come from tenant leases. At the same time, he has to pay staff to keep the runways open 24 hours a day.

The federal government has outlined more than a billion dollars in aid for airports spread out over several years. Almost half that money will go to fund ground access to the biggest facilities. But for mid-sized airports, such as Halifax and St. John’s, Ottawa is waiving land lease payments for 2021.

“By waiving rent in St. John’s, Newfoundland, that equates to maybe $450,000 in rent relief,” said Stanford. “But they would have added another $30 million in debt just to get through 2020 and 2021. So, the rent relief doesn’t really help a lot.”

Atlantic airports are negotiating with the federal government for their share of more than $200 million in help. ACAA is preparing a final presentation to the minister next week.

“We’re considered mission-critical infrastructure, but we’re certainly not treated that way,” said Stanford. “We’re deep in discussions with Transport and [the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency] on funding packages. It looks like help is on the way.”

Problem is, airlines have so far received nothing. Westjet and Air Canada are bleeding cash. And if the airlines can’t restart regional services, no amount of airport aid will help.

“We’ve got some opportunities to tap into some money to ease some of the sting,” said Stanford. “But we still need the airlines. Airports need airlines to operate and our airline partners are taking a beating as well.”

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