Nova Scotia

Passenger flights to resume at Sydney airport as WestJet plans June return

After a long winter without air service, flights will once again be lifting off the tarmac at the airport in Sydney, N.S. WestJet announced Wednesday morning it will be restoring a daily Sydney-to-Halifax route, starting June 28.

Cape Breton has been without air service since Air Canada pulled out in January

A sign on the outside of an airport building shows a picture of an airplane and the name J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport.
WestJet has announced it will resume some passenger flights in Atlantic Canada, including a daily route between Sydney and Halifax starting on June 28. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

After a long winter without air service, flights will once again be lifting off the tarmac at the airport in Sydney, N.S.

WestJet announced in a press release Wednesday morning that it will be restoring a daily Sydney-to-Halifax route starting June 28. 

It's one of a number routes in Eastern Canada the Calgary-based airline said it would be restoring, a list that includes Toronto flights to and from Charlottetown, Fredericton, Moncton, St. John's and Quebec City. A Halifax-St. John's route is also returning.

In Cape Breton, that means its central airstrip will be waking up from hibernation after losing all passenger traffic in January.

"It kind of tells us there's confidence in our market," said Mike MacKinnon, CEO of J.A. Douglas McCurdy airport. "And there's confidence we may have a summer where they'll see air travel, so great news." 

WestJet suspended the various routes in the fall as a result of plunging passenger numbers due to COVID-19 restrictions.

MacKinnon estimates more than 100 people at the airport lost their jobs since the winter, when Air Canada also suspended all of its flights in and out of the airport.

"This is seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, finally," he said.

An Air Canada plane is driving on a runway underneath a WestJet plane that is taking off in front of a mountain range.
Calgary-based WestJet says it's going to resume flights to Charlottetown, Fredericton, Moncton, Sydney and Quebec City in June. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

MacKinnon said additional air service may be restored in the coming months. He said all signs point toward the return in early June of Air Canada's flights between Sydney and Toronto.

"Right now, our airline partners are trying to determine the level of investment they can make for this summer," MacKinnon said. 

"As we know, air travel demand has been suppressed in our region due to the 14-day quarantine requirement, so we are all looking for a plan from the province to address the restrictions, hopefully, in time to have a summer travel season."

Air Canada has told Sydney airport officials that it is reopening bookings for passenger service between Sydney and Toronto. The first flight is slated for takeoff on June 1. 

There have been no commercial flights in Cape Breton since Air Canada shut down its service on Jan. 11.

Vaccine and quarantine

MacKinnon said news that Nova Scotia has an objective to vaccinate 80 per cent of its population by the end of June is very promising.

But he said a 14-day quarantine for those arriving from outside Atlantic Canada would make it difficult for airlines to make investments in air service. The continued loss of service would be devastating to summer tourism on the island, he said. 

"Opening the Atlantic bubble is good news for sure, but it really does not move the needle very much as far as air travel in [and] out of our market. We really need to be open to all of Canada."

MacKinnon said things remain relatively quiet in Sydney, as the only flights arriving are carrying cargo or transferring patients between hospitals, along with some search and rescue and training operations.

    'Logistical nightmare'

    Josh Rambeau is looking forward to returning to his old travel schedule.

    But until the Sydney airport resumes its service in June, the rotational worker must continue to drive four hours from North Sydney to Halifax for connecting flights to his job site in British Columbia.

    Josh Rambeau is a rotational worker who lives in North Sydney, N.S. (CBC)

    Prior to the pandemic, Rambeau could fly directly into Toronto and then connect to Vancouver.

    "It's been a logistical nightmare, trying to find a ride or bring my own vehicle and trying to find a place to park," Rambeau said.

    "It means less time at home ... I try to stretch it out as far as I can but I have to leave a day earlier sometimes. The last storm we had, I caught the tail end of that and it was a pretty rough trek to Halifax."

    'A good first step'

    WestJet officials say they're cautiously optimistic that domestic travel will return later this summer. The airline said Wednesday that the situation remains fluid.

    "We really are encouraging Canadians to travel domestically," said WestJet director of government relations Andy Gibbons.

    "And I think the comments from the Atlantic premieres around the re-establishment of the bubble is a good first step and we welcome that first step."

    Gibbons said he hopes to see funding set aside for increased COVID-19 testing in the federal budget, but provided no update on negotiations regarding support packages for the battered airline industry. 

    But he said there are "absolutely" conversations ongoing with Ottawa with regards to some passengers requiring proof of vaccination.

    "There's discussions on a wide variety of issues, from the technology platform required to how it can work with our own systems and what is required to unlock safe travel and tourism," said Gibbons.

    Other connections that WestJet is reinstating are:

    • St. John's-Halifax, six times weekly starting May 6. 
    • St. John's-Toronto, once daily starting June 24.
    • Fredericton-Toronto, once daily starting June 26.
    • Quebec City-Toronto, once daily starting June 28.
    • Moncton-Toronto, once daily starting June 30.
    • Charlottetown-Toronto, 11 times weekly starting June 24.