January 18, 2016 7:39 pm
Updated: January 20, 2016 7:11 pm

Fort McMurray’s airport, hotels and restaurants hurting with oil’s slide

WATCH: Of the 40,000 temporary workers who fly in and out of Fort McMurray, Alberta, it's estimated about half have lost their jobs. In the first installment of our series on oil's future, Reid Fiest spoke with people in the once booming community that's now facing a bust.

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FORT McMURRAY, Alta. — Fort McMurray’s airport is the gateway to Alberta’s oil sands.

It was built close to two years ago, when oil prices surged. But as crude plummets, the number of people flying here goes with it.

READ MORE: Oil briefly slips below $29 as Iran vows to pump more into market

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Joseph Gaudet has commuted from Prince Edward Island for nine years. He was laid for from his job as an equipment operator just a few hours before he spoke with Global News on his way home for the last time.

Gaudet’s not sure what to make of the bad economy.

“I feel sorry for guys that have been laid off. For me, Fort McMurray was excellent for me,” he told Global News before flying out of town.

It’s a fear others sitting in the airport terminal have every day.

“I work for a pretty good company, so we’re pretty healthy,” says Scott McNaughton, an oil sands worker from Vernon, B.C. “[But] it crosses my mind all the time. Will I have my job tomorrow?”

Blaine Menuier from Sudbury, Ont. says fewer and fewer employees return to the work sites every tour of shifts he works.

“We were running approximately 70 guys last year. Now, we’re negotiating work for about 10 men,” Menuier told Global News.

The terminal saw a peak passenger total of 1,308,416 in 2014, but that dropped 16 per cent to 1,099,663 last year.

Flights to the United States and Mexico have been grounded and airlines have even adjusted some domestic legs for the lower passenger loads.

The Fort McMurray Airport Authority says it’s trimmed some costs and hopes it can handle any furthers drops in travelers.

“You can’t let the snow pile up, you’ve got to keep the runways clear,” says Airport Authority CEO Scott Clements. “You have to meet all your regulatory standards, so we still have some flexibility with our plan.”

READ MORE: More layoffs and continued recession in 2016: ATB report

Fewer planes also means less need for hotels.

Gone are days of no vacancy signs and stays for $200-300 a night for a room.

Fort McMurray Hotel Group is the largest operator of rooms in the municipality.

General Manager Jean-Marc Guillamot occupancy is just under 50 per cent across the municipality and rates down approximately $15 nightly.

Many hotels have laid off staff or even closed floors of buildings to stay open, but few are optimistic about when the hospitality industry could see a recovery.

“Realistically, 2020,” says Guillamot. “From now to 2020, I think we’re going to hop along.”

READ MORE: Consumer confidence is surprisingly high — but falling: poll

Bars and restaurants are also feeling the pain. There’s no more waiting for a table. You can have your your pick of any table.

As a promotion, the Wood Buffalo Brewing Company started selling its beer for one-tenth the closing price of oil.

It began at $60 a barrel, which worked out to $6 for a pint. Now, it’s nearing the minimum price it much charge: $2.88.

“I hope it doesn’t go that low,” says Wood Buffalo Brewing Company’s Adam Solar. “But, the way that the markets are going right now, we’re not too sure. That’s as low as we can go.”

The problem is, oil prices can continue to drop.

Gaudet knows that all too well. He just hopes for the sake of this community, they don’t stay there for long.

WATCH: The price of oil closed below $30 per barrel today, leaving many in the industry with an uncertain future and a big impact on Fort McMurray’s economy. Provincial Affairs reporter Tom Vernon reports.

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