Missed connections: N.L. eyes options in search for direct air routes to Europe

Newfoundland and Labrador has not had a direct transatlantic connection since 2019.

Premier and tourism minister pitched Aer Lingus on Dublin-St. John’s route

A plane is pictured in the air.
Newfoundland and Labrador government officials have met with Aer Lingus about the potential for a Dublin-to-St. John's direct flight. (Aer Lingus)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government is pursuing the potential of reconnecting air links with Europe, and hopes Irish ayes will have people here smiling — eventually.

Premier Andrew Furey and Tourism Minister Steve Crocker met with Aer Lingus's director of network planning in Ireland last September, to discuss prospects for a Dublin-to-St. John's route.

"Obviously the re-establishment of a European route is extremely important to us, re-establishment of a direct U.S. route is important to us, as is regional connectivity," Crocker told CBC News.

The minister said the government has "an important role to play" but acknowledged that it's a tough time as the industry emerges from a COVID-19-related slump.

"The thing we hear consistently from airlines when we talk to them is they're trying themselves — as we are as a province — to get back to pre-pandemic numbers," he said. 

"Their first priority is to get back to their routes that they had pre-pandemic."

The province hasn't had a direct connection to Europe since 2019, when Air Canada suspended the St. John's-to-London Heathrow flight in the wake of safety concerns involving Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft.

A man is pictured facing the camera with artwork in the background.
Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism Minister Steve Crocker says the government has 'an important role to play' in efforts to increase air access to the province. (Dan Arsenault/CBC)

Crocker also had a virtual call with the German leisure airline Condor in October. Condor has operated a seasonal direct connection from Frankfurt to Halifax and has flights to other Canadian cities.

The minister said the airlines are listening, and he thinks the government is making a good case. But he acknowledges that it's a bit of a long game, at this point.

"We'll focus on 2024 because we haven't seen any uptake in 2023, and at this point in time we won't," Crocker said.

Aer Lingus did not respond to requests for comment. CBC News learned about the meeting through an access-to-information request.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Condor spokesperson Johanna Tillmann said the airline is "continuously in talks with several destinations and countries" with respect to new opportunities, and acknowledged meeting with Newfoundland and Labrador officials in recent months.

But Tillman added, "There are currently no concrete plans for these routes." 

A year ago, Air Canada told CBC News it "does not have plans to add any international flying out of St. John's." The airline did not respond to messages last week.

WestJet dropped transatlantic flights from St. John's in 2018 and is now refocusing efforts on its base in western Canada.

Air access important to tourism industry

Hundreds of people involved in the province's tourism industry descended on Gander last week, with air access on the list of key concerns.

"I think when we do not have direct services to major centres — whether it's into New York, whether it's into Dublin, whether it's into Heathrow, into London — we're missing the opportunity to bring people from further afield," said Deborah Bourden, the new chair of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador.

She says the province has a role to play, as everyone continues to look for answers.

"The airlines are facing their own problems," Bourden said. "It's not just about putting money down and buying routes anymore."

A woman wearing a black jacket holds up a cellphone to take a picture of a glacier.
Icebergs have become a staple of Newfoundland and Labrador tourism. But there are concerns that a lack of air access to the province is impeding the industry. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

The inconvenience — or inability — to get to the province can have an impact on attracting tourists.

"Whenever it takes people longer to get here, then they often decide not to come," said Bourden, who runs the Anchor Inn in Twillingate.

Aviation industry expert John Gradek agrees. He says transportation links are key.

"If you don't have the air services, [it] doesn't matter how much money you spend in tourism in Newfoundland — you need air to make it work," said Gradek, a lecturer in the aviation management program at McGill University in Montreal.

A lack of flight capacity means the tourism industry has "one, maybe both, hands tied behind your back," he said.

To lure a carrier like Aer Lingus, Gradek says provincial officials need to have a targeted program aimed at supporting a specific service. 

"You want to basically make this laser-focused, you want to make it very specific — specific carrier, specific route, specific amount of time," Gradek said.

"And let's see the carrier take action to basically start that service, and get funded directly or indirectly by the provincial government."

A bald spectacled man clad in a suit stands smiling.
John Gradek is a lecturer in aviation management at McGill University in Montreal. (McGill University)

By way of example, he points toward efforts by the Manitoba government to subsidize a connection between Winnipeg and Los Angeles.

Gradek cautions it's not necessarily a swift process.

"A carrier has got to do a lot of homework to basically support their services," he said.

"It's not deciding one day we're going to fly and the next day we're there." 

The tourism minister says they're working on it.

Crocker points toward a pot of $1 million in funding split among airports in Deer Lake, Gander and St. John's last year to assist in route development and better air access.

"If you think about the tourism and hospitality industry, right now it's our No. 1 issue, No. 1 challenge," he said.

"Unfortunately, I think it's going to take time."

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