If there was one person who could truly be called an icon of the travel industry, it was Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart.
HALIFAX — When the federal government announced on Nov. 8 that a financial assistance package was in the works for Canada’s airlines, Air Canada – which had already been forced to make drastic cuts in the wake of COVID-19 – said it would put any further service cuts on hold pending the outcome of those talks.
In the weeks since there’s been no further update from the government about the bailout and now comes word that Air Canada will be suspending all flights until further notice in Sydney, NS and Saint John, NB, and suspending four routes until further notice in Deer Lake, Charlottetown, Fredericton and Halifax.
The Atlantic Canada Airports Association (ACAA) says Atlantic Canada’s airports were advised Dec. 8 of more service cuts and station closures by Air Canada, effective Jan. 11, 2021.
The association notes that the second wave of COVID-19 infections is piling added pressure on a sector on the verge of collapse.
“Station closures are the worst-case scenario for some of our region’s smaller airports, and the result will further fracture the viability of people who need to efficiently move in and out of these communities,” says the ACAA. “The cumulative impact of air carrier service reductions is bigger than a blow to our region; we could be looking at the end of some of our small regional airports if solutions are not found.”
According to the ACAA, Air Canada advised that starting Jan. 11, 2021, it will be suspending all flights until further notice in Sydney, NS and Saint John, NB and suspending four routes until further notice in Deer Lake, Charlottetown, Fredericton and Halifax.
The news comes just over five months after Air Canada announced the indefinite suspension of service on 30 domestic regional routes, as well as the discontinuation of service to eight Canadian airports, in the wake of the pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions.
The airport stations impacted by that June 30 announcement included two in Atlantic Canada: Bathurst, NB and Wabash, NL.
And the 30 domestic routes cut indefinitely included many in Atlantic Canada.
The news also comes on the heels of the Oct. 14 announcement from WestJet that it was cutting 80% of its Atlantic Canada capacity, indefinitely suspending operations to four Atlantic Canada gateways – Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney and Charlottetown – and significantly reducing service to 2 more, Halifax and St. John’s, amid the sharp downturn in travel as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“WE ARE DOWN TO BARE BONES FOR AIR SERVICE”
“We are down to bare bones for air service, which makes each of these cuts more devastating because they cut at the heart of communities, and they cut our region off from the rest of the country,” said Monette Pasher, Executive Director of Canada Airports Association.
“We are going to have a long hard road ahead of us to rebuild air access for our region. Repercussions of these cuts will be felt for years to come in many Atlantic Canada cities, towns and rural communities.”
Pasher adds that the industry has been calling for federal support for the nations airlines for months now.
“The Air Sector was mentioned in the Fall Economic Statement released on November 30th, and although our region and small airports are grateful for the financial support and look forward to hearing how it will help keep our communities connected,” said Pasher.
“Unfortunately though, there was not enough support for medium size or large airports and no news for air carriers other than the wage subsidy support. Half of the employees in our industry are out of work, and as a hardest hit sector, more support is required urgently for airports and airlines in order to get through this pandemic.”
She added: “When the airline industry contracts, smaller communities are hit hardest and we are seeing that again today. The biggest reason for today’s cuts is a combination of the domestic travel restrictions unique to our region and rising COVID cases across the country, which understandably, impacts demand. Industry experts say it could take up to a year until the majority of the population is vaccinated, this sector cannot wait that long to begin recovery. Our provinces need to implement testing to better understand the level of COVID-19 in our communities and help rebuild consumer confidence in this sector, which is why we have been calling for testing pilot programs at our region’s airports.”
FURTHER CUTS WERE DEFERRED PENDING PROGRESS OF BAILOUT TALKS
After Minister Garneau’s announcement on Nov. 8 that that federal government planned to put together a financial assistance package for Canada’s airlines, Air Canada noted that it had a further 95 domestic, U.S. transborder and international route suspensions, and nine Canadian station closures, in jeopardy as a result of travel restrictions and sharply decreased demand.
At that time Air Canada’s President and CEO, Calin Rovinescu, said that in light of Garneau’s announcement, Air Canada would wait on the government talks before announcing any more route suspensions or station closures. “At the end of June, we made the difficult decision to indefinitely suspend 30 domestic routes and close eight regional stations and our Network Planning team has identified up to a further 95 domestic, U.S. transborder and international route suspensions and nine Canadian station closures required to preserve liquidity, cut costs and reduce capital expenditures as we prepare for a smaller footprint expected to last several years,” said Rovinescu on Nov. 9. “Given the public statements made by the Honourable Marc Garneau, Canada’s Minister of Transport, on November 8, 2020 regarding commencing immediate discussions with major airlines on aviation industry sector-specific support, we are deferring the additional route suspensions and station closures pending the progress of those discussions.”
The Nov. 30 Fall Economic Statement, delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, included some relief for regional airlines but no further news of an airline industry bailout, to the surprise of many in the industry.