Plane traffic has been few and far between at London’s International Airport amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but come next month that will change.
Airport officials say Air Canada, which hasn’t flown into or out of London, Ont., for the last several weeks, will begin offering two daily flights to Toronto starting June 22.
The impact of the coronavirus on air travel is evident when you consider that pre-pandemic, nine Air Canada flights left London every day for Toronto, in addition to two Ottawa-bound flights and one to Montreal.
“We’ve gone from, I guess, 2,500 passengers a day to some days… yesterday we were at 25 passengers — 10 going out and 15 coming in,” said Mike Seabrook, the airport’s president and CEO.
WestJet has continued to operate passenger service out of the airport, albeit with fewer flights — about four a week — all to Toronto, Seabrook says. The airline is expected to up that number to one a day beginning in July.
Despite the lack of passenger service, the airport hasn’t been entirely quiet thanks to medevac, cargo, and corporate departures, along with occasional general aviation flights — “the person who likes to fly for fun.”
“But it is really eerily slow,” Seabrook said. “So we’re looking forward to society getting back to even close to normal and a return of flying activity.”
A return to normal can’t come soon enough.
Following a year of record-breaking passenger traffic in 2019, airport revenue is expected to be halved in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Seabrook, however, is optimistic.
“There’s still demand here in our marketplace, and we’ll get this thing back when society returns to levels that’ll support travel again.”
Seabrook said the airport has experienced voluntary layoffs due to the pandemic, but has otherwise kept on most of its crew with assistance from the Emergency Wage Subsidy Program.
“We’ve kept all our crew working, kind of, in two crews at separate times, keeping separation,” he said. “We’ve managed to keep everybody busy.”
Workers have been using the dearth of traffic over the last several weeks as an opportunity to spruce up the airport, repaving the main parking lot, painting the inside of the terminal, and replacing tarmac on the taxiway.
With borders closed and travel restrictions in effect, the aviation industry, like many others, has been hit hard by the pandemic, with airlines bleeding cash as planes remain grounded and maintenance and airport fees add up.
Two weeks ago, Air Canada announced it would lay off about 20,000 employees after reporting a first-quarter loss of more than $1 billion after slashing its flight capacity by more than 90 per cent.
Last week, the company said it would bolster its summer schedule, which nonetheless remains more than 50 per cent smaller than last year.
WestJet, meanwhile, has cancelled tens of thousands of flights, including all U.S. and international routes, through July 4, and has shed around 9,000 workers, according to a company spokesperson.
“Talking to the airlines, obviously, they’re very cautious,” Seabrook said of restarting flights. “If they’re operating their aircraft at empty or near-empty, they’re losing more money than if the aircraft had just parked.”
“But they are seeing positive signs in terms of demand,” he noted. “People do have to travel.”
“There’s a segment of society that just travels for fun, but we do have to get around … So there’s pent up demand and we just hope that the faucet gets turned on fairly quickly.”
The International Air Transport Association predicts global revenues will fall by US$314 billion this year, or 55 per cent, from 2019.
— With files from The Canadian Press