The President and CEO of the Saint John Airport says it’s important for people not to think the “bolts are on the door” despite Tuesday’s announcement of more flight cuts to Atlantic Canada.
“I’m confident of the future for the aviation sector and the airport itself for sure,” said Derrick Stanford.
Air Canada says that as of Jan. 11, flights in and out of Saint John and Sydney, N.S. will be suspended. Four flights will also be suspended until further notice: Deer Lake, N.L. to Halifax; Fredericton to Toronto; Charlottetown to Toronto; and Halifax to Ottawa.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the company said its decision came down to low passenger traffic.
“Air Canada is still carrying less than eight per cent of its normal passenger volumes due to factors beyond our control and with no horizon for recovery,” the statement read.
Stanford, who also heads up the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, says the airport in Saint John will continue to operate and remain open.
“We’re a pretty busy airfield,” said Stanford. “We’ve got a lot of private corporate clients that use the airfield.”
Stanford pointed to the Coast Guard terminal at the airport as well as Medivac flights that come and go from the airfield.
But some of the customers affected by the flight cancellations don’t have as cheery an outlook.
‘Not a realistic place to live’
Jennifer Hutton is an IT director with a company based in Montreal but calls Halifax home.
That means she’s constantly in the air for work. She’s not sure how long that will last.
“Is it realistic for professionals, for people who work outside the province and for people who need to travel? Atlantic Canada is not a realistic place to live on a full-time, permanent basis,” Hutton said.
Routes between Halifax and Montreal weren’t impacted by the most recent round of Air Canada cuts, but Hutton says fewer flights anywhere are driving up demand and prices.
Stanford says the airport’s staff had already been reduced by 50 per cent prior to Tuesday’s announcement because of cuts various airlines made earlier in the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He says he doesn’t see more job cuts at the airport coming.
“We’re pretty much at a staffing level required to operate an airport,” said Stanford. “There’s not much lower that we can go.”
Some customers less concerned
Stanford says he feels badly for oil patch workers though.
“We have a lot of people who live in Saint John who make their living out west,” he said. “It’s a bit of a longer drive for them in the tough winter months to get their flights.”
Joel Cousins is one of those workers, typically flying out of Saint John to oil refineries all over the country.
But with no more flights flying out of Saint John he’ll now be forced to depart from Moncton or Fredericton.
“Fredericton’s a little over an hour away; I lived in Toronto and it would average an hour to get to the Toronto airport. Nothing I can do about it.”
Despite the latest challenges, Stanford continues to have positive thoughts about the airport’s future.
“There already is a massive pent-up demand for travel,” he said.
“As the vaccine gets rolled out and we can demonstrate success with the vaccine … and as we ease provincial border restrictions and shorten 14-day isolations and open the Canada-U.S. border and open international borders … as we see a return to the ‘new normal’ as everyone calls it now, you will see people return to the skies.”
Premiers in the region say they’re hopeful that the soon-to-be arriving vaccine can help revive the aviation industry.
“It is my hope that… we not only find the airline services back connected to our region,” said Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.
“(But) go back to what we had, which is a competitive airline sector.”
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says he still has questions.
“Are we going to have planes land that are going to take off empty?”
Stanford points to passenger testing as an important step in moving toward COVID-19 recovery.
“We need to blend science with precautions with an effort to shorten and ultimately eliminate — hopefully, when it’s safe — 14-day isolations,” said Stanford. “If we can get that chopped in half or close to in half by blending science as a risk mitigation in that equation, I think that’s important to help restore passenger confidence.”
In the meantime, Stanford says the runways will be kept clear and safe and the airport will be ready for when people are ready to travel.