Air Canada had planned to bring flights back to Saint John on June 1, but its latest route information shows no flights scheduled until June 29, when it is slated to begin a route to Montreal. Saint John-to-Toronto flights are scheduled to begin July 1.
“It certainly is discouraging,” said Greg Hierlihy, Saint John Airport’s acting CEO. “But we weren’t surprised based on what’s going on across the country and with hot spots and with cases rising, we know, it’s understandable.”
Hierlihy admits there is an extra level of anticipation surrounding the airport.
Low-cost carrier Flair Airlines is due to launch July 2 after having its Saint John debut pandemic-delayed by a year. Porter Airlines plans a July 20 restart and regional carrier, PAL Airlines, brings its services to Saint John on Aug. 2.
Hierlihy said destination airline Sunwing has also confirmed a return.
He said he’s confident travellers will come back, eventually.
“It’ll obviously depend on the recovery and people’s willingness to travel,” Hierlihy said. “There’ll be a bit of a slow, steady recovery, we think. Eventually, we expect it to be — with adding the new airlines — quite busy in the airport which would be a great thing for us to see.”
There have been no commercial flights in or out of Saint John since early 2021. While those resumption schedules are in place, at least one industry analyst believes more needs to happen before passenger numbers rise throughout Atlantic Canada.
Karl Moore, a professor at McGill University, anticipates the possibility of vaccine passports, differing quarantine rules and other COVID-19-related issues will hamper the industry as a whole for some time.
He said opening provincial and international borders will be critical to its recovery in Atlantic Canada.
“We can get some tourism from within Canada,” Moore said. “That would be good this summer, but it’s the foreign tourists that are going to make a huge difference. It’s also business people going to and from Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa and that sort of thing that’s going to help the demand for air travel.”
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Hierlihy said he’ll be watching vaccination rates and case numbers over the coming weeks as the potential return of flights draws closer.
But he said he’ll also checking passenger levels in other provinces.
“There’s a little more movement in some other provinces in the country and we’ve seen what their seats and passenger rates have been,” he said.
Moore believes it will take several years for the industry to reach early 2019 passenger levels in the Atlantic region.
Hierlihy said he expects passenger levels in 2021 to be similar to 2020 levels, roughly 15 per cent. He said the airport lost $1.8 million last year and is trending toward the same number in 2021.