‘Eerie’ absence of air travel amid coronavirus has repercussions on economy

An almost-empty Terminal 3 is shown at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Friday, March 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Millions of Torontonians living and working under the flight path of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport may have noticed a big difference recently in the skies above them.

The number of flights into and out of Pearson has been cut by more than 50 per cent over the past couple of weeks, with further grim cuts coming soon because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Following air traffic flows on web flight tracking services and news releases from Canadian airlines on how many flights they have cut or are cutting because of travel bans between Canada and the U.S. and the lack of passenger demand caused by the new coronavirus, there were only about 500 air movements on Wednesday.

The peak morning and afternoon rush hours now have so few flights that the radar picture looks like the usual situation 1 a.m. Additional deep service cuts announced by Canadian and U.S. carriers suggest that the number of flights will drop sharply again by the end of March.

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“It’s really eerie,” said an air traffic controller at Pearson airport.

Official flight figures for February and March were still being collated, but “it is well known that the aviation industry has seen air traffic on the whole decrease significantly,” said Brian Boudreau, manager of media relations from Nav Canada, which manages airspace across the country.

Nav Canada said late Wednesday that an employee with the agency responsible for managing Canada’s airspace had tested positive for COVID-19 and was at home in self-isolation.

“This employee had been travelling and has not been at work since March 5,” said Brian Boudreau, NAV Canada’s manager of media operations. “No other employees have been in contact with the employee since that time. There are no operational impacts.”

The news from Nav Canada followed the temporary closure of air traffic control centres in Indianapolis and New York City last week, with backup facilities being set up, after workers were found to have contracted the novel coronavirus in the usual ATC facilities.

Canada’s aviation industry is of great strategic and economic importance, making Nav Canada a critical national asset. That’s because the country’s size and how thinly the population is spread out.

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This makes Canadians especially dependent on aircraft to fly them and critical cargo around.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: An eerie look at empty cities around the world'
Coronavirus outbreak: An eerie look at empty cities around the world

What has been happening at Toronto Pearson and all other Canadian airports — as can be seen on flight tracking websites — is a stark illustration of why the International Air Transportation Association announced Wednesday that its 290 member airlines would likely lose $252 billion this year.

As a result of the global pandemic, thousands of Canadian aviation workers are being laid off and airlines have been in talks with Ottawa about emergency financial assistance. Without them, airline executives have said they will fail.

This will cause unpredictable but serious consequences for the Canadian economy unless the aviation industry gets hundreds of millions of dollars in urgent relief that it has been seeking.

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While many Canadian businesses are appealing for help, if Canada’s aviation industry falters it would have serious repercussions. That’s because the country’s size, and how thinly the population is spread out, make the economy especially dependent on aviation to fly people and critical cargo around.

The staggering knock-on effects of the disease on the aviation industry can be vividly seen by anyone driving past Kitchener/Waterloo airport. Sunwing Airlines Inc. of Etobicoke, Ont., has parked 13 Boeing 737s there that would normally be flying flat out at this time of year to get Canadian snowbirds to and from sunny destinations in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico. All 470 Sunwing pilots were laid off on Monday.

“We had to close one of our runways to make space for the Sunwing aircraft,” said Kitchener Waterloo’s airport manager, Chris Wood. “It is really unfortunate that this is creating huge problems for our industry but we are here to help in any way we can.

“We had conversations with all the carriers last week. Looks like they are all finding homes for their aircraft, typically as close to their maintenance facilities as possible.”

Toronto’s island Billy Bishop airport has also closed one of its runways to park some of Porter Airlines’ fleet of 29 Q-400 aircraft, which stopped flying last Friday. Transat, which is based in Montreal, is winding down all its operations and won’t resume them for at least five weeks.

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WestJet Airlines announced this week that it was suspending all international flights and would be cutting 6,900 jobs from its workforce of about 14,000 through voluntary and involuntary layoffs.

It has grounded 126 of its aircraft and parked them at 10 Canadian airports from Terrace, B.C., to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and Halifax, accordingly. The bulk of the Calgary-based carrier’s jets are there or at Toronto’s Pearson, Westjet said in an email Thursday, though some of the aircraft might still be repositioned.

A substantial number of its overwhelmingly Boeing fleet is also in Vancouver, Kelowna or Edmonton. Ten more of them are parked at an airfield in Arizona between Phoenix and Tucson, where there is less corrosion because of the desert air.

Speaking from Geneva on Wednesday, the head of the International Air Transport Association, Alexandre de Juniac, said he expects that because of the new coronavirus, airlines will require $200 billion in emergency government aid to remain solvent. The British government said this week that it would not bail out airlines. However, “as a last resort,” it might speak with some carriers on an individual basis.

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The North American aviation industry has generated about two-thirds of the industry’s global profits in recent years. But since the novel coronavirus seized global attention when it was first detected in December, shares in the four leading U.S. carriers have lost between 40 per cent and 66 per cent of their value. The airlines have made an urgent appeal for $50 billion in emergency funding to avoid bankruptcy.

Air Canada is suspending almost all international flights and laying off 60 per cent of its cabin crew.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which are the hubs for international aviation giants Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airlines, announced that effective Wednesday night, all flights to and from those Gulf sheikdoms would be suspended for at least two weeks.

Singapore Airlines, which often wins awards for having the best customer service, cut 96 per cent of its flights on Wednesday and grounded all but 11 of its 196 aircraft. KLM announced this week that it was slashing 90 per cent of its flights.

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Hong Kong Express, which is owned by Cathay Pacific, went even further. It cancelled all flights until the end of April.

These actions followed steep flight cuts by Cathay Pacific and European carriers such as Lufthansa and British Airways. Qantas, the Australian carrier, has cut all international flights, laid off 20,000 of its 30,000 workers and arranged Wednesday for $1 billion in additional credit by using seven of its widebody jets as collateral.

Even worse than this tsunami of flight suspensions and appeals for aid, the aviation industry will still face immense challenges, whether or not a treatment or a vaccine for the new coronavirus is found. It is widely expected that few corporations will have much money to spend to fly large numbers of their executives around the world in the expensive business class seats that provide major carriers with much of their profit.

Nor, whenever the crisis ends, will large numbers of tourists have money to spend on exotic holidays. This, in turn, will lead to far fewer hotel and resort bookings for major corporations and small businesses that have had to close down most of their operations.

Particularly hard hit will be cruise ships. They will suffer from a double whammy of fewer passengers with money to spend and, perhaps fatally, because several cruise ships ended up becoming huge incubators for the virus, helping to spread the disease around the world.

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Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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