'It's like somebody just turned off the switch': Airport businesses in survival mode during pandemic
‘There’s no playbook for this, we’ve never been through anything like this before’
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.
"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.
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.
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.