Nfld. & Labrador

Gander airline asks PM for aid for battered industry, as pressure mounts for help

EVAS Air has shifted from passengers to packages, while Gander Airport's renovations have slowed to a trickle as everyone in the industry sees little way forward without a cash boost.

EVAS Air wants help delivered to national carriers

EVAS Air has stayed afloat with cargo services and private charters, but its CEO says the larger industry needs help. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Gander may have awoken to a winter wonderland on Wednesday, with the town coated in more than 25 centimetres of snow, but there's been a hint of the holidays in the cargo holds of EVAS Air's fleet long before that.

"We've been at Christmas volumes and levels for probably months now. So the cargo is going really well," said Pat White, the CEO of EVAS Air, an aviation company headquartered at the Gander International Airport.

The increase in ferrying packages to and from the mainland is a rare bright spot in an industry decimated by COVID-19, which has hit Canada's largest carriers and small regional companies alike. The pandemic's effects haven't spared Gander, a town centred around its airport, which has been seeing its share of troubles and where pressure for outside help is mounting.

White has managed to pivot EVAS from carrying passengers to other areas, like booking private charters or air ambulances. He's had his share of pandemic-related setbacks and layoffs, as White's company ran many of Air Canada's Atlantic Canada routes before Air Canada suspended those runs in June as part of a larger cutback plan to stem its financial bleeding.

But even as EVAS airplanes keep taking to the skies, White sees darkness edging in, and recently wrote to the prime minister in a bid to garner a federal bailout for the industry. White said his letter asks for aid to be delivered to the national carriers, a $5- to $7-billion injection into the backbone of the country's air service.

"We have to make sure that national airline system survives, as us as regional carriers, we got to have somebody to connect to," White said.

Patrick White of EVAS Air wants a federal aid package of between $5 billion and $7 billion delivered to national airline carriers, which will in turn support regional ones. (Submitted by EVAS Air)

'Worst crisis' in history

White is not alone in his request for federal help. 

"This is the worst crisis in aviation history, without a doubt," said Karl Moore, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and longtime airline industry observer.

Federal aid, in Moore's mind, is "long overdue," as he said many countries in Europe and Asia have already lent support to their struggling airline industries. The United States agreed to a $25-billion package in April.

One assurance, said Moore, is that the Canadian industry may be past the worst of the pandemic's impacts, as domestic travel has picked up slightly from when COVID-19 brought it to a near standstill in the spring. But the Atlantic bubble continues to depress travel in Atlantic Canada, and recovery isn't imminent just because there are fuller planes elsewhere in the country.

"We probably have passed the lowest point, but we're not far from it," said Moore.

White said his request — which could involve repayable loans — would help the industry as it struggles to regain its feet. He sees next spring as a time when a more sustained recovery could happen, if the health measures needed to make that happen are in place.

"People are pent up here like a bag of pink insulation … ready to bust. People will get out again, people will travel again — they just need to feel safe," he told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.

The Gander Airport's international departures lounge, seen here before its renovations, was set to reopen as a public gathering space in June. The pandemic has delayed those plans with no reopening date yet announced. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Renovations going ahead, slowly

The main terminal of the Gander International Airport is akin to a ghost town these days, although that is partly a public safety tactic: only workers and travellers are allowed inside. But with passenger volumes down 85 per cent, there are far fewer people passing through security since the pandemic hit.

The airport made $2.5 million last year, but so far in 2020 has lost $4.5 million, said CEO Reg Wright, who has previously said the federal government will need to step in and aid the industry at some point.

The current losses mean almost all capital projects have been cancelled for the year to save money. The one outlier to that is the renovation to the terminal's famed international lounge, a marvel of modern-era architecture

The airport received $1 million in funding from ACOA and the provincial government to overhaul the area, and is spending $500,000 itself on the project.

"The marching orders at the time were, we want this room to be where Gander gathers again, so it's a place for cultural programming, socializing, retail events, that kind of stuff," Wright said.

The renovated lounge was initially set to open by June, but the pandemic threw a wrench into those plans, "which is an understatement," Wright said, noting the original idea of crowds and events doesn't square with the current COVID-19 climate.

But while the airport's battered finances have slowed the project, Wright said it is going ahead, albeit at a slower pace.

"The enthusiasm is still there. I still believe in the project. We've got a lot of creative minds around it," he said.

"I think people are really going to love what's on the other side of it. It's just the route to it is a little more difficult."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning

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