Nova Scotia

Air Canada cuts are 'final nail in the coffin' for air service on Cape Breton Island: airport CEO

Air Canada's decision Tuesday to indefinitely suspend its operations in Cape Breton will have an "absolutely catastrophic" effect on the Nova Scotia island, according to the CEO of J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport.

Airline suspending all service to and from J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport next month

Mike MacKinnon, CEO of J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, says air service is vital for the island's economy and he hopes it will return in the spring. Air Canada said this week it will suspend service between Sydney and Toronto as of Jan. 11. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

A decision by Air Canada to indefinitely suspend its operations in Cape Breton will have an "absolutely catastrophic" effect on the Nova Scotia island, the CEO of the airport in Sydney, N.S., said Tuesday.

Mike MacKinnon called the airline's move "a massive blow" to the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport, which he said was already struggling to survive during a pandemic that has brought air travel to a near standstill.

"Our airport has been repeatedly slashed by air service cuts ever since the pandemic began and now this announcement, on top of the recent WestJet route suspensions, is effectively the final nail in the coffin for air service to/from our community for the foreseeable future," MacKinnon said in a news release.

Air Canada suspended service between Sydney and Halifax earlier this fall. On Tuesday, the airline said service between Sydney and Toronto, now offered five days a week, would cease as of Jan. 11.

New challenges, costs for rotational workers 

The move is a major blow for rotational workers who regularly travel outside the province for work. 

Josh Rambeau of North Sydney is a workplace health and safety advisor in the construction industry. He's been doing rotational work for 10 years and currently works around southern British Columbia.

He said his usually 20-minute drive to the airport will now turn into a journey of more than four hours so he can catch a flight out of Halifax.

"It's very disappointing," Rambeau said Tuesday. "It's going to take more time away from my family. It's going to add expenses on for me for travel, it's more fuel costs."

Since he has to get on a flight one way or another, Rambeau said in the winter, he'll likely have to spend nights in a Halifax hotel when rough weather is expected. He'll also have to budget for public transit, taxi cabs or the cost of leaving his car at the airport for weeks at a time. 

Josh Rambeau is a rotational worker who lives in North Sydney, N.S. He says the suspension of the Toronto flights, which now operate five days a week, will mean a four-hour commute to Halifax for him instead of the usual 20-minute ride to the airport. (CBC)

If he is able to get a drive with friends or family, they will then have to isolate for two weeks in accordance with provincial COVID-19 regulations and miss out on work themselves. 

Rotational workers in the province can spend time with their families in their own homes without physical distancing but can't go into stores and other public places.

Although Rambeau said some Cape Bretoners have applauded the announcement because they assume the cancellation of flights will help keep COVID-19 out of the area, he fears the opposite.

He said workers like him will now increase their exposure risks because of longer journeys, with more stops along the way, including in more-populated cities, such as Halifax.

He also sympathizes with the airport staff who will lose their jobs as a result.

"There's nothing good about this," Rambeau said. 

    Airport using reserve funds

    MacKinnon noted that before the pandemic, Sydney was served by both Air Canada and WestJet. The airport had regular service to Halifax and Toronto, and seasonally to Montreal. 

    Service cutbacks to the region and other parts of the Maritimes began this fall with WestJet; Air Canada suspended some of its services soon after.

    WATCH | Air Canada cuts more flights to Atlantic provinces:

    Air Canada cuts more flights to Atlantic provinces

    2 years ago
    Duration 1:44
    Air Canada has announced another round of service cuts for several communities in Atlantic Canada, a move some fear could spell the end for struggling airports in the region.

    In an interview, MacKinnon said the recent service cuts mean the airport is using its reserve funds to stay open.

    After the last commercial flight on Jan. 10, he said the airport plans to stay open for private planes, medevac and cargo planes that come a few times a week.

    "It will be a very quiet winter and basically we'll be going into a bit of a hibernation ... working hard on recovery strategies." 

    Air Canada also announced Tuesday that it was pulling out of Saint John indefinitely, as well as suspending four routes in Deer Lake, N.L., Charlottetown, Fredericton and Halifax beginning Jan. 11.

    Those routes include:

    • Deer Lake-Halifax
    • Fredericton-Toronto
    • Charlottetown-Toronto
    • Halifax-Ottawa

    3rd major round of cuts to region

    The Atlantic Canada Airports Association issued a statement saying the service cuts could lead to the closure of some small regional airports.

    "This is the third major round of cuts to air service for our region in the last six months," said Derrick Stanford, association president and CEO of the Saint John Airport.

    "Service has been whittled down to an unsustainable level for our airports. Our industry cannot survive and operate in these conditions, and we are seeing the worst-case scenario playing out here today.

    "This will have a huge impact on our region's economy, on the ability of families to reconnect, on the movement of essential workers, and on airport employees and businesses."

    Cape Breton politicians to convene 

    Earlene MacMullin, deputy mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, said council has started planning an emergency meeting on the service shut-down with the aim of finding a way to prevent it. She said they hope to bring in politicians from other levels of government, and other community stakeholders.

    "It's very difficult to market yourself as a place for business and tourism and relocation of families when the closest means to air travel is four or five hours away," MacMullin told CBC.

    "It's possibly quite detrimental ... and so I think we need to pull together and do everything we can and try to stop it."

    Vaccine could put travellers at ease

    Airport CEO MacKinnon said he's hopeful COVID-19 vaccines — the first of which are expected to be rolled out on a small scale in Canada this month — will start to restore some public confidence in air travel.

    But with widespread distribution of vaccines likely several months away, MacKinnon said he wants the provincial and federal governments to support COVID-19 testing at airports — something that has recently been piloted in Alberta and Ontario, but not administered on a large scale.

    He said he was encouraged by Ottawa's fall economic update, in which Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland mentioned support for regional airports would be coming soon. But he'd also like to see help for airlines.

    "An airport is just not successful without airlines operating and without commercial air traffic," MacKinnon said. "That's the bottom line."

    Halifax left with six destinations

    Tiffany Chase, Halifax Stanfield International Airport spokesperson, said Tuesday their Ottawa and Deer Lake routes will be suspended for at least one month, but that suspension could be longer depending on demand in February.

    She said they were disappointed to see the Halifax-Sydney route suspended indefinitely, which means it likely won't be coming back "anytime soon."

    The Halifax airport will be left with service to only six domestic destinations in total during the Ottawa and Deer Lake suspension, Chase said. In 2019, the airport flew to 46 locations within Canada, the United States and other countries.

    Chase said their flight network took years to build, and although people might think air services will simply come back when there's a vaccine in wide-spread use, that might not be the case.

    "In some cases these routes may never come back," she said.

    Current environment 'challenging,' Air Canada says 

    In an email to CBC Tuesday, Air Canada said the decision to suspend all routes to Sydney and Saint John was "not taken lightly" and it regrets the impact on customers and community partners.

    The airline said it is "increasingly difficult to continue to operate in this challenging environment, without specific financial support from government." In the statement, the airline said it is waiting for government negotiations to start.

    According to the statement, Air Canada is still carrying less than eight per cent of its normal passenger volumes during the COVID-19 pandemic, "with no horizon for recovery."

    Following WestJet's announcement in October, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil called on the federal government to create a national strategy to protect air travel in the region.

    "We believe the national government needs to be at the table to recognize that ... our greatest success of recovering economically after COVID, will be with a vibrant air service that will include in our region, both Air Canada, WestJet and others," McNeil said at the time.

    Chris d'Entremont, the Conservative MP for West Nova, said Nova Scotians who depend on the aviation sector have long been calling for a plan from the federal Liberal government.

    "As a result of this suspension, airport employees, rotational workers, university students and the tourism industry will be greatly impacted," d'Entremont said in a statement.

    "Unfortunately, the Trudeau government continues to leave the thousands of Canadians who rely on the aviation industry in the dark about how or if they will have jobs to return to."

    With files from Brittany Wentzell, Kayla Hounsell, Tom Ayers and Stephanie Tobin

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