Higgs puts airports back on the table, and reaction has been swift
Premier wants to find out how to improve airport access, prompting some to say 'now is not the time'
The often-raised, never-settled topic of merging the province's three main airports is back in rotation again after remarks made in the government's throne speech on Tuesday.
Premier Blaine Higgs's newly re-elected government made its throne speech on Tuesday, and along with health care, education, public services and the pandemic, it singled out airports as a focus.
The speech noted that the PCs plan to "ask the fundamental question about our airports," facilities that have been hobbled by the pandemic but are vital to economic growth.
"Is our existing infrastructure meeting the needs of travellers to and from New Brunswick, and is it meeting the needs of the business community and university students who want to call New Brunswick home?"
The speech did not explicitly mention the idea of merging the Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton airports into a single centralized facility, but in an interview on Information Morning Fredericton on Wednesday, Higgs acknowledged that's a solution often offered up whenever the airports' viability is discussed.
"I know people immediately jump to 'Oh, well one airport,'" Higgs said. "I don't know that that's the right solution. But obviously people are finding a reason not to use our airports as much as they could."
Higgs noted that the pandemic has deeply cut into traffic and revenues at airports but said that even in "normal" times, travellers are not using the province's airports to full advantage, and he intends to launch a study to find out why.
"I constantly wonder, why aren't we able to keep our people travelling here?" he said. "Four-and-a-half million passengers travel through Halifax [airport], one-and-a-half million through our three airports combined. ... What is the reason? Is it pricing? Is it connections? Why aren't we getting better access?"
While airports are a federal jurisdiction, he said "airport structures themselves are not without cost to the province." So the study "would not be a rationalization of airports themselves as much as an understanding of how do we provide the best service possible, what are we missing?"
Asked what he would do if the study concluded it would be best to consolidate the three airports, Higgs said he would take the matter to the public, possibly as a referendum.
"We would present the facts and say, 'Here's how good we can be. What does that look like?' "
Ultimately, he said, he would want to "promote the best option" for New Brunswickers.
"That's the goal."
Airports need targeted aid, chamber says
But even in the preliminary stage, the topic is ruffling feathers.
Some stakeholders say now is not the time to be launching a study into the viability of airport infrastructure — or tinkering with options for its improvement.
"The time to do that is not during a global pandemic," said Krista Ross, CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce. "We are in a difficult time right now, but we see that as a temporary situation."
Ross noted that access to an international airport is essential for businesses in the region. Key decisions are made based on proximity to airports, on ability to serve clients and ship goods.
"Government needs to help our airport with some targeted aid to get them through this. Because when we are on the other side we are going to need these airports — all of them."
Fredericton International Airport CEO Johanne Gallant said she was aware of the throne speech's mention of airports and expects to have a "conversation with the government about the benefit our airport provides."
"Air access is critical to sustain and grow our communities, and we welcome conversations with the provincial government about how it could support air service development," Gallant said in an email. "These are complex questions, and they do not have simple answers."
Merger wouldn't be province's decision to make
Meanwhile, Derrick Stanford, CEO of the Saint John Airport and president of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, said the Higgs government is free to study the issue, but the decision to merge airports would not be theirs to make.
"He can study whatever he wants, but the airports operate as individual businesses and are led by a board of directors in collaboration with Transport Canada," Stanford said.
Stanford acknowledged that the pandemic has put intense pressure on airports and airlines, and said changes are inevitable.
Earlier this year, Air Canada announced the indefinite suspension of 14 flights to Atlantic Canada, including several in New Brunswick.
Let's face it, the Atlantic bubble is very frustrating for airlines.- Derrick Stanford, CEO, Saint John Airport
That may not be the end of it, Stanford said.
In an email, Air Canada said Wednesday that it has identified "up to a further 95 domestic, U.S. trans-border and international suspensions and nine Canadian station closures required to preserve liquidity, cut costs and reduce capital expenditures."
It did not say which Canadian stations were pegged for closure or which routes were identified for suspension, and noted that it will defer any such moves "pending the progress of discussions" with Transport Canada about support for the struggling sector.
But if it does move ahead with station closures and route suspensions, Stanford said he expects at least some of the impact would be felt here.
"With 95 route suspensions, for sure some of those would be in Atlantic Canada," he said.
He noted the Atlantic bubble presents challenges to airlines, with restrictions on who can and who can't enter the provinces, and said it doesn't help that the Province of New Brunswick "sends a team to every airport every day" to question travellers about their reasons for travelling and plans to quarantine.
"Some of that will be alleviated with rapid testing," he said. "But for now, let's face it, the Atlantic bubble is very frustrating for airlines."
With files from Information Morning - Fredericton and Jacques Poitras