Nfld. & Labrador

Air Canada cuts mean more isolation, tougher travel: Gander, Goose Bay, Deer Lake airports

In the wake of Air Canada cutting service to Gander and Happy-Valley Goose Bay entirely, the people in charge of the airports worry about ripple effects within their communities.

Everything from medical travel to attracting newcomers will become harder

Goose Bay Airport general manager Goronwy Price, left, and Gander Airport Authority CEO Reg Wright say the loss of Air Canada leaves their communities much more isolated than before. (CBC)

The latest round of Air Canada cuts to flights in and out of Newfoundland and Labrador will have severe and long-lasting consequences on connecting the province — particularly people in rural communities — to the rest of Canada, warn the heads of two airports in the province.

Air Canada will drop its remaining flights in and out of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Gander, and end its Toronto-to-St.-John's route as of Jan. 23, the carrier said Tuesday evening, as it shrinks its service across the country in an effort to stay afloat amid the pandemic. 

The loss of the Gander-to-Halifax run didn't come as a shock to Gander Airport Authority CEO Reg Wright. There, staff have bracing for such news in the face of continued dwindling traffic, "hanging on by a fingernail to the side of the cliff," he said, having lost two previous Air Canada flights in June.

Before the pandemic, Air Canada accounted for 70 per cent of Gander's passenger traffic and 25 per cent of the airport's total revenue, Wright said, totalling $2.5 million. He maintained the airport itself can stay solvent, but hopes people understand the loss of the company entirely is about far more than future frivolity, like trips to Florida, that is currently unthinkable.

"I think the general public sitting there saying right now, you know, 'I understand this is happening and I don't really care, because I don't want to want to travel' — well, you know, there's a lot more to it than that," he said. 

Without Air Canada, he said, it will be tougher to attract newcomers — from physicians to immigrants to businesses — and keep rotational workers coming and going.

"There's one thing you need as an airport in Newfoundland and Labrador, and that is you need daily service to mainland Canada. That is absolutely fundamental for an airport to have any prospect of success. So getting this, or something comparable, restored is a big priority for us," he said.

Air Canada accounted for the lion's share of Gander's pre-pandemic passenger traffic, said Wright, and generated about $2.5 million in revenue for the airport. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Isolation intensifies

In a year when air travel plummeted across Canada to an unprecedented extent, Happy Valley-Goose Bay's airport has fared better than most, even if "better" is a relative term; the airport has been operating at about 40 per cent of total passenger volume, said general manager Goronwy Price, compared with most other airports' 15 per cent.

Price chalks that up to how much essential travel still passes through Goose Bay Airport, particularly rotational workers and people in need of specialist medical services outside the province.

When we do want to travel again, it's going to be more expensive, it's going to be less convenient, and we're going to have to work three times as hard to restore the service.- Reg Wright

"The challenge is going to be, those essential travelers are going to have a tough time plugging in without that connection to the national and international circuit," Price said.

For those people and businesses who have to fly, Price said, it will now take even longer and cost more to leave Labrador, and that needs to change.

"Something has got to happen so that the isolated regions like us have the direct connectability to national and international travel so you don't have to pay those extreme costs in order to get out," he said.

A rough road to recovery

The Jan. 23 cuts, which Air Canada said are indefinite, as opposed to temporary stoppages last spring, bring an end to 75 years of the company serving Goose Bay, said Price. But more than mourning the end of an era, he's looking ahead to an uncertain future, and predicts any recovery is a long way off.

"It's going to be tough to get back to the levels that we were at before, in terms of supporting our local businesses and stuff like that. It'll take at least a couple of years," he said.

Goose Bay Airport still has service with regional carrier PAL Airlines and Air Borealis. Price said regional and national companies will have to work together to find ways to combine tickets and move passengers more economically.

"There's going to have to be some way that the carriers on the ground here can plug into a national carrier in an easier transition so that, you know, passengers can move as easily as possible right through different systems," he said.

Goose Bay Airport is still served by Air Borealis and PAL Airlines. Price says larger carriers and regional ones will need to work together to get people where they need to go. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Gander also still has service with PAL Airlines. On Wednesday, Wright called for the federal government to help aviation companies like Air Canada, calling any aid an "economic enabler" that will benefit small communities like his. 

"We're not going to go very far in this jurisdiction if we're not going to have access. I think that's absolutely critical. I think it's dragged too long," he said.

For Deer Lake Regional Airport, on the island's west coast, Tuesday's announcement didn't have a direct impact. However, Tammy Priddle, CEO of the Deer Lake Airport Authority, said a cut announced late last year — reducing a daily flight from Deer Lake to Toronto to four days a week — came into effect Tuesday. 

Priddle said Air Canada will review the flight suspensions in February, but for the time being it hurts the airport's connectivity to the rest of Atlantic Canada and Toronto, and rotational workers are feeling the impact.

"We finished out our fiscal year of 2020 with a significant loss.… We're down $1.4 million [in revenue], and our overall net loss is about $750,000 when you factor in some of the subsidy that we have received through the Canada wage subsidy program," she said. 

While 2020 was difficult, she said, she's worried this year will be worse.

"Looking ahead to 2021 we're very concerned that our losses this year will be even greater."

Priddle said the airport authority is projecting losses until at least 2025, and there's a fear that some of the suspensions will become permanent. 

"That will remain to be seen, and that will certainly depend on the state of our economy, the demand for business travel and the demand for leisure and family visitor travel," she said.

Priddle is also calling for support from the federal government, but Ottawa has not announced any such aid so far in the pandemic.

St. John's South- Mount Pearl MP Seamus O'Regan posted late Tuesday night on Facebook, "We're working on help for the airline industry so that people can get where they need to go again."

In a post-COVID-19 world, Wright predicts a long road ahead with a huge challenge ahead for Gander and the rest of the province: attracting Air Canada back.

"There's going to be a massive amount of competition among jurisdictions to have air services, and Newfoundland and Labrador, because our travel restrictions have been among the most severe, is going to be the last dog to the bowl," he said.

Air travel may be forever changed, Wright said.

"When we do want to travel again, it's going to be more expensive, it's going to be less convenient, and we're going to have to work three times as hard to restore the service."

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