'They set this up to fail': Stephenville mayor says PAL Airlines could have saved route

The Town of Stephenville learned yesterday it's losing its only year-round commercial flight — and Mayor Tom Rose says that could have been prevented.

Mayor Tom Rose says town met with airline previously to advise on making route viable

Stephenville Mayor Tom Rose has some harsh words for PAL Airlines after its decision to cancel service to the town's airport. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

The Town of Stephenville is working to secure a deal with a new airline after its airport's only year-round carrier announced its departure.

PAL Airlines took town officials by surprise Wednesday, saying service to Stephenville is no longer viable and confirming that it handed a mandatory 120-day notice to the Canadian Transportation Agency. Its final regularly scheduled flight is set for Jan. 16.

Mayor Tom Rose called the news "very disappointing" for the town, which in recent years has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Stephenville Airport — a rarely used hub that's widely known to have bled money for years.

"We're in a crisis mode right now."

Rose said once PAL, former Provincial Airlines, pulls out there will be no flights other than air ambulance or seasonal leisure travel from Porter or Sunwing, which forces anyone travelling for medical, business "or any other reasons people get on airplanes" to drive approximately 130 kilometres to Deer Lake.

On Wednesday, Stephenville-Port au Port MHA Tony Wakeham called the airline an anchor tenant for the airport, expressing concern over access to air travel in the province.

PAL could have done more: mayor

PAL's vice-president of business development, Steve Dinn, told CBC News fewer than 150 passengers had used the twice-weekly service so far this year, instead preferring to fly out of Deer Lake.

Despite the company losing money on the route, Dinn said cancelling the service "was not an easy decision."

But Rose said PAL did little to heed his business advice, and if it had, may not have hemorrhaged money.

"We basically said, 'there's no one flying on your flights, and here's a bunch of reasons why,'" he said, describing a meeting with the airline over a year ago.

The departures area of the Stephenville airport isn't as busy as it once was. (Twitter/@DaBuins77)

In that meeting, Rose said the town pointed out that the route's "inconvenient" schedule, lack of marketing presence and its tendency to offer cheaper fares out of nearby Deer Lake Airport were all likely contributors to the decline in passengers.

"We said, 'Come in with a better schedule, become more profitable, and municipalities in this region will support you.'" Rose said.

"But they didn't listen.… They set this up to fail."

This route map, on PAL's website, still includes Stephenville. (PAL)

According to its website, PAL operates flights to and from 28 locations throughout Eastern Canada, though the Stephenville location is still listed. That includes several routes for Air Borealis, which is operated by PAL. 

The airline's head office is in St. John's, with an additional one in Halifax. 

Talks with new carrier ongoing, mayor says

Rose said the town has poured significant funds into the airport, and with PAL's announcement will have to look at management restructuring.

"Seven, eight hundred thousand a year — we can't sustain that."

He said the town has requested an emergency meeting with Premier Dwight Ball and senior officials to look at how the town's investment might be salvaged.

Rose said return on that investment had paid off in terms of jobs and economic impact until recently.

The pilots of PAL Airlines say the airline is making changes without consulting their newly-assigned union, in violation of the Canada Labour Code. (PAL Airlines)

Although Rose called the airport "vulnerable" following PAL's decision, he indicated the town is working to secure a new carrier.

"In the last year, when Provincial Airlines turned their backs to us and wouldn't meet with us and wouldn't respond to us, we've been in negotiations with a new carrier," Rose said.

"We're not going to give up."

Joe Sheen, chair of Stephenville Airport's board, told CBC News on Thursday afternoon the manager of the Stephenville Airport Corporation will be releasing a statement.

He said the board was disappointed by PAL's stated intentions late Wednesday morning, but it won't respond further to inquiries until next week.

"As a board we cannot engage in knee jerk responses — 'burning bridges' at a time like this is not helpful," Sheen said in an email.

"The future of Stephenville Airport is far too important to the region and the province as a whole. As a board we have to take [a] responsible approach to this disappointing news." 

Sheen said the board will update when it has more information or by Wednesday next week at the latest.

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With files from Terry Roberts and Newfoundland Morning