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As last flights leave some Maritime airports, locals are left wondering when they’ll return

An Air Canada Airbus A320 jet (C-FPDN) takes off from Vancouver International Airport, Richmond, B.C. on Thursday, September 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Bayne Stanley

Monday saw the final commercial flights take off from two airports in Atlantic Canada, leaving them without access to commercial air service.

Air Canada announced last month that it would cancel all flights to and from Sydney, N.S., and Saint John, N.B., and reduce service to Deer Lake, N.L., Charlottetown, Fredericton and Halifax during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December the company said that it experienced significantly reduced traffic due to COVID-19, ongoing travel restrictions and quarantine rules, low seasonal demand and the termination of the Atlantic bubble

For those affected by the travel cuts, they say the worst thing about the situation for the Saint John Airport and the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport is that no one knows if or when flights will be coming back.

“It affects our ability to do business with the rest of the world and with the rest of the world to do business with us,” said Kathleen Yurchesyn, CEO of the Cape Breton Chamber of Commerce.

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Read more: Air Canada reports more service cuts, station closures in Atlantic Canada

For the residents of Cape Breton, the nearest active commercial airport as of Monday is now located in Halifax.

Travellers to the island must now either make a five-hour drive across Nova Scotia or take the ferry from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Yurchesyn says that kind of distance makes it incredibly hard for anyone to have access to Cape Breton and that includes international students who want to study at Cape Breton University or rotational workers who want to travel home from working in other provinces.

Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the air terminal in Sydney, says the last commercial flight left at 5:30 a.m. AT Monday and that the airport will now shift to non-commercial service, including medical and cargo flights.

MacKinnon said the airport will cut its daily operating hours by half, to 12 from 24, adding he didn’t know when commercial air traffic would return.

“It’s really frustrating to be one of the airports to lose service all together,” he said. “We’ve seen the service here die a death of a thousand cuts.”

Click to play video 'Air Canada making more cuts across Atlantic Canada' Air Canada making more cuts across Atlantic Canada
Air Canada making more cuts across Atlantic Canada – Dec 8, 2020

He confirmed to Global News that the airport has now laid most of its workers.

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Before COVID-19 there were about 140 direct jobs at the airport, MacKinnon said, which included airlines, restaurants, ramp staff, cleaners, car rental agencies and security staff.

As of Monday, there are 40 people.

This isn’t the first blow Sydney’s airport has faced, as Air Canada had previously suspended flights from Sydney to Halifax. WestJet, the only other airline serving the airport, suspended its flights in October as part of cuts that also affected Moncton, N.B., Fredericton, Charlottetown and St. John’s, N.L. ”

In Saint John, president and CEO of the Saint John Airport Authority Derrick Stanford says the last commercial flight out of the airport left at 7:30 a.m.

“The withdrawal from all of the services is really going to put Atlantic Canada’s ability to participate in the recovery at risk,” Stanford told The Canadian Press on Monday.

“We’re already disadvantaged geographically because of where we are.”

That airport will remain open for private jet service, medical evacuations and as a terminal for the Canadian Coast Guard.

Read more: Air Canada cuts deal ‘massive blow’ to Cape Breton, according to airport CEO

For now, with the last of the planes now gone, Yurchesyn says that her efforts are forward-looking.

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Despite the lack of information on when flights will resume, she says it’s important that they do once it is safe to do so.

COVID-19 may have dampened travel and border restrictions may have further hampered travel to Cape Breton but revitalizing the economy in the second largest municipality in Nova Scotia is going to require flights.

“We need access to air to for the revitalization of our tourism economy over post-secondary and of our ability to grow and sustain,” Yurchesyn said.

We recognize that, yes, there are not a lot of people flying right now as they shouldn’t be, for many reasons. But we need to look at the sustainability and our ability to grow as an island when it comes time to adjust back to that new normal as we become a more vaccinated population.”

She says she’s urging anyone who wants to see that happen to sign a petition for the topic to be debated in The House of Commons.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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