General aviation

Toronto was not the busiest airport in Canada in 2020

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Boundary Bay Airport sees the most takeoffs and landings, the first time in 38 years Pearson did not claim top spot

Toronto Pearson International Airport (CNW Group/Greater Toronto Airports Authority).

For the first time since 1983, Toronto Pearson International was not Canada’s busiest airport last year. Statistics Canada released data Thursday showing Boundary Bay was the busiest airport in 2020. It’s another sign of how much the pandemic has upended the aviation industry.

“Toronto/Lester B. Pearson — historically the country’s busiest airport — experienced the largest decline in air traffic in 2020, with 280,047 fewer takeoffs and landings than in 2019,” the agency reported. Pearson recorded 175,060 movements last year, down 61.5% from 2019. That was enough to knock the airport into second place among Canada’s busiest facilities.

Boundary Bay claimed top spot with 185,431 takeoffs and landings. That was down 14.6% from the year before, but nowhere near as steep a decline as the busiest passenger hubs. In fact, at times the airport actually grew, despite the pandemic. Statistics Canada reported that in July, Boundary Bay recorded 27,000 movements, its highest total in modern history.

Boundary Bay is a municipally-owned general aviation airport in Delta, British Columbia, south of Vancouver. The airport was opened as a flight training centre in the Second World War. Despite going through periods when it wasn’t an airport – between 1971 and 1983, the city council used the grounds as a sports field – the facility has rebuilt its niche as a one of the country’s busiest pilot training grounds. Today, five flight training schools call the airport home.

Four of the country’s 10 busiest airports last year were located in British Columbia’s South Coast. Two – including Pearson – were in Southern Ontario, two in Calgary, and two in the province of Quebec.

A major shift

In fact, 2020 showed a major shift among Canada’s airports as passenger traffic plummeted due to COVID-19. Overall, Canada recorded 3.8 million aircraft movements in 2020, down from 5.9 million the year before.

“Domestic movements declined 35.8% in 2020, from 3.4 million movements in 2019 to 2.2 million in 2020,” StatsCan reported. “Scheduled service, particularly in Eastern Canada, was impacted heavily by the collapse in passenger demand. The magnitude of the overall decline was masked in part by domestic non-scheduled aircraft movements such as flight training and fire-fighting operations.”

Vancouver International handled 156,000 movements in 2020 while Montreal-Trudeau did not figure among the 10 busiest airports in the country. Together, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal handled the majority of passenger traffic in 2019. Calgary, which has in the past challenged for third spot among passenger airports, was the sixth-busiest in the country. Quebec City was the only other international airport to crack the top 10.

International flights to the United States fell to 155,793 on the year, down 68%. That’s the largest decline in any single sector. International flights fell 58%, to just 79,449 movements.

The Canadian government closed the country’s borders to most non-Canadians in March. At the same time, it imposed a two-week quarantine on most international arrivals. It has since tightened restrictions even further, adding pre and post-flight COVID testing requirements and a mandatory hotel stay.

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Revenues decimated

General aviation and cargo airports, meanwhile, held their own. Traffic at Montreal – Mirabel fell a relatively modest 14.3% year over year. And in Hamilton – Canada’s busiest overnight cargo hub – traffic fell 19% on the year and even recorded a modest uptick in November.

“Demand for air cargo remained strong, as cargo-specific carriers benefitted from fewer passenger flights, which resulted in a reduction in overall cargo capacity,” the agency said. “Furthermore, e-commerce sales soared because of recurring closures of non-essential businesses and stay-at-home orders.”

Fewer people travelled in all of Canada last year than Pearson normally handles in a year. In all of 2020, the country’s largest airlines carried 24.7 million passengers. That’s down 71% from 2019.

“The first three months of the year accounted for about 75% of the total annual number of passengers.”

–Statistics Canada

“In fact, these carriers transported more passengers in January and February alone than in April through December combined,” StatsCan reported. “The first three months of the year accounted for about 75% of the total annual number of passengers.”

Capacity dropped 63% on the year to 91.3 billion available seat-kilometres – a key airline metric. Load factor – another key airline metric – was less than 50% the agency said, including just 47% in December. It’s generally accepted among airline executives that they won’t make money at load factors less than 60% or more.

That decline has severely hurt the bottom line. The country’s largest carriers earned revenues of just $8 billion last year, down 68% from 2019. Air Canada, the only airline to publicly release its results, recorded a $4.6 billion loss in 2020.

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