Nfld. & Labrador

Labrador hit hard by Air Canada cuts, as leaders question airline motives

Leaders in Labrador West and Happy Valley-Goose Bay aren't happy with the airline's decision to chop several routes in the region, and pull out of Wabush Airport altogether.

Air Canada cut 7 routes in N.L. Tuesday

Wally Andersen, left, and Jordan Brown both say the loss of Air Canada has major implications for travel to and from Labrador. (CBC)

Political leaders in the Big Land are unhappy with Air Canada's slashing of routes to the region, saying flights will now be scarcer and more expensive, and are questioning the company's motives.

The airline announced Tuesday it's pulling out of Wabush Airport, as well as dropping its flights from Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the island, as part of a 30-route cutback across Canada.

Air Canada's only service to Labrador is now its flight between Goose Bay and Halifax.

"To have the mat pulled underneath our feet from Air Canada here, it's devastating," said Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Wally Andersen, noting the impacts ripple out to Labrador's north and south coasts, where people rely on travel through Goose Bay to get to medical appointments on the island.

The MHA for Labrador West echoed those concerns, with Jordan Brown calling the move "a big blow to the region."

"We get so busy here in Lab West, especially when the mines are having any rebuilds or anything like that. So this is going to create a massive bottleneck in the availability to travel out of the region," he said.

Both see all sorts of traffic affected, from leisure tourism to medical appointments, to construction workers commuting to jobs. With the current push for summer staycations in the province, Andersen said the Air Canada move means any extra boost of visitors to Labrador is "going to be almost impossible."

"We went through COVID-19 and were all looking forward to opening up a little bit. But to have your travel limited, it's not something we were looking forward to," he said.

The Goose Bay Airport has lost all its Air Canada flights except to Halifax. (goosebayairport.com)

COVID a convenient excuse?

They also predict the price of remaining flights to and from the Big Land, already costly and in short supply, is set to skyrocket.

A regular return ticket from Goose Bay to St. John's easily tops $1,000, with last-minute flights far more than that, and Andersen is left wondering about Air Canada's rationale for the move.

"For them to say they weren't making money, when their planes were basically full … I question the reason why they're pulling out of Goose Bay," he said.

I think they used this COVID as an excuse to just cut ties altogether with the region.- Jordan Brown

Air Canada has stated the cutbacks are an attempt to staunch the financial bleeding it's experienced since the start of the pandemic, as plane travel has nosedived. The carrier had a net loss of more than $1 billion in the first quarter of 2020 alone and trimmed its workforce by 20,000.

Unifor Local 2002 represents aviation workers in the province. Job losses with Air Canada struck office and customer service staff in St. John's.

Euila Leonard is the President of Local 2002 and chair of the Unifor Aviation Council. Leonard said the federal government has a big role to play in stabilizing the industry.

"The employers have to apply to the federal government for the wage subsidy replacements, and we do have many workers on that. That program needs to continue and we need to ensure that when there are services needed in our various regions of the country, that our local businesses do step up and support," she said.

"And as soon as it's safe, both in our Atlantic bubble, which is due to open on July 3, hopefully we'll see our region start to see more and more people start to travel as well, and that will certainly put more of our people back to work."  

Brown shares Andersen's skepticism, noting that Air Canada has "slowly deteriorated" the quality of its Wabush service for years, downsizing from jets to an 18-seater Beechcraft.

"I think they used this COVID as an excuse to just cut ties altogether with the region," he said.

Wabush Mayor Ron Barron took things a step further Tuesday, telling CBC News he sees the loss as a potential ploy for Air Canada to angle for a federal bailout.

Air Canada lost more than $1 billion in the first quarter of 2020 alone. (Jonathan Dupaul/CBC)

'This is a disaster'

Air Canada's now-non-existent routes within Newfoundland and Labrador were contracted out to Gander-based EVAS Air.

Tuesday's news doesn't come as a surprise to its CEO Pat White, as Air Canada had already grounded those flights in April, resulting in two-thirds of EVAS Air employees being laid off.

"As long as the system across Canada is shut down, and people are restricted from moving, the airline business will continue to really, really struggle," he said.

"This is a disaster for the air transportation network in Canada."

While White remains hopeful a future deal with Air Canada can be made to reinstate some routes— and EVAS Air continues to handle Air Canada cargo flights to the province — he said it's impossible to predict what further impact the pandemic will have on air travel.

For that reason, he said, EVAS Air won't be moving in to pick up Air Canada's slack. But he didn't rule it out in the future, as since his company owns its planes and has the human resources to run them, taking on logistics like ticket sales and reservations isn't an unmanageable idea.

"We have to see that when, and if, we do make a move, and how we make that move, that it has some opportunity to carry on and be successful, in the long term."

PAL Airlines declined to comment on whether it would step up its offerings in light of Air Canada's decision. (PAL Airlines)

Other airlines

Barron said he had spoken to PAL Airlines about possibly taking up some of Air Canada's slack. PAL declined an interview with CBC, but in a press release it said the airline wanted to reassure its customers in Atlantic Canada that nothing was changing in its operations.

"They can continue to book future travel with confidence in our airlines," Calvin Ash, the company's president, said in the press release.

The company posted similar sentiments on its social media accounts

Brown said he had no commitments as of yet from other carriers to step in and fill the Air Canada void in Wabush, while Andersen said regional leaders would be coming together to reach out to other airlines and advocate for more service.

Wabush Airport is still served by PAL, as well as Pascan Aviation and a few other small regional carriers. Goose Bay remains served by PAL and its subsidiary Air Borealis.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

With files from Labrador Morning and Garrett Barry

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