Chamber leaders team up to defend airports against threat of closures
Amid declining air travel, 3 chamber CEOs say airports will play key role in economic recovery
New Brunswick's three biggest chambers of commerce have joined forces to send a message to the province that it's time to drop the "one central airport" idea once and for all.
The idea has been floated for years but has gained new traction since the pandemic hit.
Travel restrictions and evaporating demand have seen airlines all but pull out of the region, and in its November throne speech, the Higgs government said it planned to launch a study of the airports' viability.
On Thursday, the province's business "big three" muscled up in resistance.
In a joint statement, Fredericton Chamber of Commerce CEO Krista Ross, Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce CEO John Wishart and Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce CEO David Duplisea stressed the crucial role airports have played in developing the province's economy.
And in interviews afterward, all three emphasized the equally crucial role they will play in its recovery.
Airports the 'crown jewel' of transportation network
Duplisea cautioned against the argument that one central airport would be more efficient financially, noting he doesn't think investors and business travellers would see it that way.
"Economic recovery is about attracting people, human resources and business, and one of the key ingredients is an active, convenient transportation network," Duplisea said. "And that very much includes the crown jewel: airport facilities."
Before the pandemic hit, he said, the Saint John Airport was working well – "it was profitable, the business community and the general community was well served, and that is a key part of our investment attraction program."
John Wishart, CEO of the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce, said it's crucial to look at the bigger picture: the combined "hundreds of millions of dollars the three airports contribute to the economy, the several hundred jobs, the several hundred spinoff jobs" — before making any decisions.
"In the short term, we are seeing that markets are deciding how airports fare, but we don't think it should be a government decision," Wishart said.
"We think the market should decide, and we think that the market will decide that New Brunswick can support three airports."
Fredericton Chamber of Commerce CEO Krista Ross cited years of consistent growth at all three of these airports.
"Our [Fredericton] airport has had 10 years of year-over-year growth, and the Saint John and Moncton airports have had similar growth," Ross said.
"That is not a business case for closing down airports and starting again somewhere else."
In their joint statement, the three chamber leaders noted that while the airports are transportation hubs, they're also "economic drivers."
The Fredericton airport has had 10 years of year-over-year growth. That is not a business case for closing down airports . . .- Krista Ross, Fredericton Chamber of Commerce CEO
Wishart also sounded a warning about the message that "even the discussion" about closing airports sends.
"It's like waving a white flag nationally and internationally, saying 'We have to reduce our infrastructure, we have to play a smaller game, so we'll look to reduce what we can offer the outside world,' " he said.
"That's the signal we're worried the province is sending with talk of reducing infrastructure."
Wishart, Duplisea and Ross all conceded that the pandemic has led to "tough decisions," but repeatedly emphasized the importance of seeing this as a temporary situation.
In fact, they noted in their statement, when the pandemic is over, travellers will find that it has left "stronger and safer airports" in its wake.
"Imagine shorter lines, more efficient checkpoints and innovative touchless technology," the statement said.
"Before the pandemic, airports in New Brunswick were thriving, with passenger travel on the rise. Once travel rebounds, which it will, we need to ensure our business travellers have the same options, not fewer."
With files from Shift NB