It has to be the most unfortunate timing in the long and storied history of Canadian airports.
Fredericton International Airport, which for years has been bursting at the seams handling more passengers than it was designed for, opened its newly renovated check-in hall and a portion of the new departure lounge this week, with nary a passenger to help celebrate the moment.
“It’s more spacious, it’s an upgrade and it’s got beautiful light coming in,” said Johanne Gallant, President and Chief Executive Officer of Fredericton International Airport, in an interview with Western Aviation News. “The whole space has been done, the ceilings are higher so it’s a total renovation because this building dated back to the 60s.”
The departure lounge, for instance, is 50% larger than what was there before, along with the addition of a covered walkway to get passengers closer to the aircraft.
“It’s got a totally different feel to it,” she said. “It’s progressive. The spacing is more efficient, it’s just a modern space. It’s exciting because as you know it’s been a difficult time for everyone, but it’s just nice to see progress.”
Normally, a terminal renovation and expansion is the kind of development an airport would celebrate, complete with local dignitaries cutting a ribbon as passengers crossed the threshold for the first time. Not so during a pandemic.
“We wished they could be here but because times are different right now, we’ll be here to welcome them when they’re ready to fly again.”
As they have with airports around the world, revenues at Fredericton have plummeted as only essential trips are taken. Fredericton passenger traffic is down 90% and Gallant expects the effects to be felt at least for the rest of 2020 and into next year.
The capital of the Canadian province of New Brunswick hosts fewer than a dozen flights a week, with daily Air Canada morning service to Montreal and four flights a week to Toronto on Westjet. The airport also handles medevac flights and military aircraft serving nearby Canadian Forces Base Gagetown.
“It’s really down to a minimum as in passengers,” said Gallant, “but meanwhile on the construction site we keep moving forward.”
Work is ongoing on a second phase that will see renovations to the arrivals hall. Construction workers are kept away from passengers, and are screened – including temperature checks – every morning.
“Where we are now, we have to finish, because if we didn’t we’d have an unfinished terminal,” said Gallant, adding the $30 million price tag is being financed with help from the provincial and federal governments.
“When it comes to operating the airport, well, we’re projecting a loss for the year,” said Gallant.
The airport has taken a number of steps to try to save money. All employees are being paid with the help of a federal wage subsidy which covers 75% of a salary up to $847 a week. Realistically, however, this will help the airport cover less than $300,000 of its costs which amounted to $8.5 million in 2018.
“We’ve done some major cutting into our budget, and we’re still gonna take a loss,” she said, appealing to the federal government for help. “We’ve asked for cash injection, so we’ll see where that goes.”
Airports across Canada have waged a campaign to get federal aid to help them weather the pandemic. They make most of their revenue from passengers, either through direct charges, or through the fees charged to companies catering to travellers.
Facilities are generally operated by non-profit airport authorities that have had to prioritize expansion to keep up with record passenger volumes in recent years, meaning many of their costs are fixed, with little room to manoeuvre when revenue sources dry up. On top of the wage subsidy, Ottawa has forgiven land lease payments for the rest of the year.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is trying to guess how long the downturn will last. “We need to manage the budget very well to be there on the recovery,” said Gallant. The new terminal could help.
“Spacing will probably be of importance, this will help us right now because we had a spacing issue before. Now we’ll be able to accommodate that.”
Gallant takes hope from a positive trend in the COVID-19 pandemic. Provincial officials announced Monday they had not seen a new coronavirus case in nine days.
“We are pleased that we were able to lessen the restrictions,” said New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs. “However, we remind everyone that this is not a free-for-all. New Brunswickers are still not allowed to participate in large gatherings. If we want to continue to move forward, following the rules that are still in place is more important now than ever before.”
“It gives you a bit more sense of confidence,” said Gallant, noting, however, that it will take more good news at the national and international level to allow passengers to return to the skies.