'It's like somebody just turned off the switch': Airport businesses in survival mode during pandemic

Businesses in and around the Edmonton International Airport are struggling during the pandemic. Some have closed up, many others have let staff go over the last eight months.

‘There’s no playbook for this, we’ve never been through anything like this before’

Passengers walk through the quiet terminal at the Edmonton International Airport's departures level. (Min Dhariwal/CBC )

This time last year, the phones at the Airport Taxi Service dispatch were ringing off the hook. 

Business travel, snowbirds heading south and family trips all meant more rides to and from the airport. But that's not the case this year, and it hasn't been that way for around eight months now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the once thriving cab company struggling, along with other businesses in and around the Edmonton International Airport. Some have closed their doors, while others let staff go.

The Airport Taxi Service which was established in 2006, had 150 licensed drivers at its height. This year, that number dropped as low as four. 

"It's like somebody just turned off the switch," said Rob Sterr, Airport Taxi Services general manager. "Drivers were just walking in and handing in their plates and taking time off work immediately." 

'It's like a disaster'

Sterr says some of those drivers have started trickling back, but many are working delivery jobs or driving trucks for companies like Amazon to help pay the bills. 

Nadeem Bhatti is one of those drivers who left and has since returned. Bhatti, a father of five, came back at the beginning of June and works 12 hours a day.
Airport Taxi Service driver Nadeem Bhatti waits for a customer at the empty arrivals area at the Edmonton International Airport. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

"It's like a disaster. People aren't travelling," said Bhatti, who has been driving for Airport Taxi since 2015. Drivers now often have to wait four or five hours for each trip from the airport, Bhatti added.

It's even worse inside. Lineups for security are non-existent, and many stores have reduced hours or are closed altogether.

"Traffic back in March basically went from over eight million passengers a year to virtually almost nothing overnight," said Steve Maybee, vice-president of operations and infrastructure for the Edmonton International Airport. 

"Initially, it was a 96 per cent drop in passengers."

Maybee says the airport has worked with businesses to help them get through this slow time, but some have just decided to close up. 

'There's no playbook for this'

Even the airport has closed off parts of the building to save money on operations. 

Staff have been let go, and the airport's priority is now making the building safe and secure for the remaining staff and the limited passengers who are flying in and out.

"We've had to make a lot of real-time adjustments, and there's no playbook for this. We've never been through anything like this before." Maybee said.

This presents a scary new reality for the business owners who have stayed open too. The Belgian Beer Cafe is one of a handful of restaurants still open for airport staff and the trickle of passengers. 

Before the pandemic, the bar operated with 40 full-time staff. At its low point this year, that number was pared down to just one.

Cale Inglis, the bar's owner, said he sat at a table at the front of the restaurant to take orders and would then cook the food himself when all they were allowed to offer was takeaway. 
Cale Inglis, owner of the Belgian Beer Cafe, stands in front of his pub in the departures section of the Edmonton International Airport. (Min Dhariwal/CBC )

Staffing has returned to around 30 employees now, but volume is still much lower than before. 

"We're lucky we're in a position where we can sort of tread water for a little bit, not long at all and again we're happy to be able to have some people back working," he said.

Inglis says the company has leaned heavily on federal government subsidies to help keep them afloat, as well as flexibility from banks and creditors. But he knows that won't last. 

On top of that, his company invested in a Canadian Brewhouse location near the security check-in that was supposed to open last July. Its new target is 2021.

'Tiny bits of good news' 

The many hotels in and around the airport have seen massive revenue decreases from low passenger volume. And the Renaissance Edmonton Airport Hotel, the only hotel connected to the airport, is in survival mode.

"It was really bad at the beginning, nobody teaches you what to do overnight when your business disappears,' said David Keam, general manager of the hotel. 

Business at the Renaissance has picked up lately, but only slightly. Snowbirds flying south for the winter occasionally stay a night in the hotel before departing, and a local mining company has booked a floor of rooms every second week. But the hotel has otherwise been using less than half of its more than 300-room capacity. 
Renaissance Edmonton Airport Hotel general manager David Keam says the hotel has lost 80 per cent of its revenue since the COVID-19 pandemic started last spring. (Min Dhariwal/CBC )

They've had huge layoffs and an 80 per cent cut in revenues, this year. The hotel's banquet and events business has also all but dried up. 

But recent news about COVID-19 vaccines has provided a glimmer of hope. 

"Anything that can provide any type of optimism, we see it," said Keam.

"It's all those little tiny bits of good news that are eventually going to add up and get us out of this." 

That's the hope, but most businesses tied to the airport agree getting back to normal, or any significant recovery, could take years.