'It's a big loss': Maritime airports concerned about future after WestJet cuts
HALIFAX -- Air travel across Canada has declined over 90 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decrease in demand has forced a drop in supply, as WestJet announced Wednesday that it plans to ground over 100 flights in the Atlantic region.
Beginning Nov. 2, WestJet will no longer fly to Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney, Charlottetown or Quebec City, and will drastically cut back its service to St. John's and Halifax.
The route cancellations mean that the airline will also shutter its operations in the airports of Charlottetown, Moncton, Fredericton and Sydney.
“For us, it’s a big loss because it’s less options for customers,” says Bernard LeBlanc, president and CEO of the Greater Moncton International Airport Authority. “WestJet used to have three flights per day at the GMA and was down to four per week, and possibly going three per week in November.”
For people who used to travel often for work, like Monika Dutt, the lack of travelling options could be felt in their wallets.
“It definitely decreases options in Atlantic Canada, and when and if I do start traveling again, it will make it harder,” says Dutt.
At Sydney’s McCurdy Airport, Air Canada is now the only commercial air travel option on or off Cape Breton Island.
“You’re losing one of your major carriers, so you’re eliminating that healthy competition that enables fares to be competitive and also give people a choice,” says Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport Authority.
The closure of the airports includes temporary layoffs for 29 employees -- eight in Charlottetown, Moncton and Fredericton, and five in Sydney.
“Losing an air carrier is definitely a sign of a declining market, and we know the reason for the decline is really the pandemic, so there’s still optimism that things will turn around as we get through,” says MacKinnon.
The news doesn’t come as much of a surprise to Doug Newson of the Charlottetown Airport Authority.
“This summer we were expecting three to four flights per day with WestJet, and that didn’t materialize obviously because of the pandemic. Over the last few months, the schedule just kept getting smaller and smaller with WestJet,” says Newsom, CEO of the Charlottetown Airport Authority.
Nova Scotia’s premier says the decimation of the airline industry threatens to hurt the province’s exports and local tourism, and is calling on the federal government for help.
“I’m very concerned for Atlantic Canada,” says Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil. “Atlantic Canada’s going to be hit harder than any other place in Canada. If the airline industries falter, our climb economically back will be that much greater without them.”
As for travellers who had already booked with WestJet, a local airline passenger rights advocate says passengers left in the lurch ought to be properly reimbursed.
“WestJet is required to provide refunds to the original form of payment. Not vouchers, not promises, not credits for future flights, but actual hard money,” says Gábor Lukács.
MacKinnon says he hopes WestJet will come back if economic conditions improve post-pandemic, and that people will eventually want to fly again, even if a full rebound takes four or five years.
“I think it will return,” says MacKinnon. “I think we’ve got to get through the pandemic.”
MacKinnon adds that given the low travel numbers, the onus really will be on air travelers to try and fly out of small local airports as much as possible, to try and help things bounce back post-COVID-19.
“We’ve lost a lot of flights, a lot of passengers, and it’s just sort of one more day of bad news to add on top of what has already been a devastating year for the airport,” says Newson.
Some worry cuts like these could threaten the very survival of smaller Maritime airports.
The decline in flights could also spell trouble for businesses in the Maritimes.
“If a company is thinking of maybe locating to Atlantic Canada, it wants to know that there are good air connections in and out. With the number of routes reduced, that’s in jeopardy,” says John Wishart, CEO of the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce.
Some passengers are fastening their seatbelts for a new normal that may be here to stay for a while yet.
“Will we need to be taking these precautions for months to years?” asks Monika Dutt. “And there’s probably going to be precautions that are going to continue on.”
Beginning Nov. 2, the entirety of WestJet's service to Atlantic Canada will now be based out of Halifax, with daily flights to Toronto, Calgary and St. John's at least once a day.