Nfld. & Labrador

Air Canada pulls out of Gander, Deer Lake, Wabush, Goose Bay as pandemic worsens

Air Canada will suspend operations in four Newfoundland and Labrador airports in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

'There's a good reason that no people are flying'

An Air Canada employee works at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on March 20. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Air Canada is planning to suspend all of its flights to Gander, Deer Lake, Wabush and Happy Valley-Goose Bay in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an update posted on the airline's website.

A route update shows that operations at three of those airports will be temporarily suspended from April 6 until June 1, while the Deer Lake suspension is currently scheduled until May 18.

The Gander International Airport Authority shared the update to its travellers on Friday. Airport CEO Reg Wright said the announcement was "not at all unforeseen."

"Last week we did five per cent of what we would typically do in that week at this time of year," he said. 

"So they're not going to continue to fly routes where there's no one flying — and there's a good reason that no people are flying." 

A spokesperson for Air Canada said in an email that operations to the four airports were suspended due to low demand.

Major pain for airport authorities

The suspension leaves the Gander Airport with only a few flights a week. PAL Airlines will fly to and from Gander twice on Sunday, Tuesday and on Thursday.

WestJet is currently scheduled to operate flights in July, but Wright said the situation is changing hour by hour. 

Wright said the airport authority will lose about $14,000 each day, starting next week, and is currently negotiating with its airport workers on layoffs. He said he's doing everything he can to cut costs and mitigate the damage.

This is a view from the air traffic control tower at the Gander International Airport in March 2016. The airport has been left with only six flights a week, after Air Canada told passengers it was pulling out of four Newfoundland and Labrador airports. (Gander International Airport Authority )

"If the airport were a jeans store, we would have closed 10 days ago," he said. "It's not a jeans store, it's an essential piece of transportation infrastructure, so we're open to accommodate the essential flow of people and goods at this time. And there still is some need for that."

He's predicting similar pain for his colleagues across the province.

"By the time it's all said and done, I think most airports perhaps in this region would probably be down 50 to 75 per cent. But I'm including airport staff proper," he said.

"At our airport now, you go there in the middle of the day — it's sort like being the night watchman, because there's already been massive layoffs among airlines, car rental agencies, anyone in the service side of it."

'A massive and unprecedented challenge'

Air Canada says the changes to its flight operations are temporary.

Wright said he is hoping for "blue sky" on the other end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but says airports and airlines have to be prepared for a long recovery.

An Air Canada plane sits at the Ottawa International Airport this month. (Jonathan Dupaul/CBC)

"If a vaccine were signed off today and in delivery to the minister within six weeks, how long do we think it would take for people to have, you know, both the economic means and I guess we'll call it the confidence to jump on a plane?" he asked.

"I'm a little bit braced for a protracted return to normalcy."

He said he's even had to consider locks for the airport doors — something that has never happened in the airport's history, he said.

"This is a massive and unprecedented challenge for us. This is 9/11 and SARS and Icelandic volcanic eruptions and massive recessions — all those things stacked up on top of each other don't even come close to the depth and the breadth of what this pandemic has meant for us."

Reg Wright is the president and CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority. (Gander International Airport Authority)

The airport CEO said his organization was expecting about $11 million in revenue this year, and have revised their expectations down to $4.5 million.

He said it's impossible to cut his way to profitability, and at some point, the federal government — which holds the lease on the Gander airport — will have to step in.

"On the other side, whenever the recovery does happen, I think the federal government is probably going to have to ask itself, what does it want the aviation landscape to look like once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror. To that extent, you know, how many airports?"

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.

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