Nova Scotia

Halifax airport passenger counts plummeted last year to 1970s levels

Like many airports around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a severe toll on activity at Halifax Stanfield International Airport.

Airport authority was expecting 2020 to be a bumper year for air travel — it was the opposite

Halifax Stanfield International Airport has seen passenger traffic cut to 25 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels. (Halifax International Airport Authority)

Halifax Stanfield International Airport was expecting record numbers of passengers and increased airlift in 2020. Instead, it has seen activity at the airport drop to levels not seen since the 1970s.

It's a situation happening at airports around the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Joyce Carter, the president and CEO of the Halifax International Airport Authority, told CBC's Mainstreet the authority had projected four million passengers would fly in or out of the airport in 2020, with 17 carriers serving 46 destinations.

The pandemic killed those expectations — there were fewer than a million.

"If you were to put that in context at the time, we would have processed one million passengers back in the 1970s. So the other Trudeau would have been our prime minister at that time."

At the beginning of this month, the airport served only four destinations — none of them international — with just two passenger carriers.

Carter said the need for public safety in the pandemic and the associated federal and provincial regulations have severely affected air travel everywhere.

She hopes that measures can be put in place at the Halifax airport to lessen the impact on travellers while still ensuring public safety. 

Joyce Carter is president and CEO of Halifax International Airport Authority and chair of the Canadian Airports Council (Eric Wooliscroft/CBC)

She noted that aviation is federally mandated and that the airport authority operates it on a long-term ground lease.

Carter said that while the federal travel restrictions were necessary to protect public health, the federal government needed to "help support the growth and the recovery from the pandemic."

"So they have a role to play in the financial support," she said. "They also have a significant role to play in testing."

She said consumer confidence in flying has to be restored and the airport authority and the Canadian Airports Council, of which she is chair, have been advocating for a consistent testing regime across the country.

"We are in a position where airports need airlines, passengers need airlines, airlines need airports, and so sectorial support for the aviation sector is dearly needed," she said.

When looking at the sector as a whole, including airports, airlines and associated businesses in Halifax, Carter said the current picture is bleak.

Billions of dollars lost

She said the job losses are about 50 per cent and revenue loss has been "in the billions of dollars."

Carter said she is not surprised that Air Canada and Westjet have been cutting back on routes in the region due to low demand, leaving some airports, like Cape Breton's J.A. Douglas McCurdy, with no scheduled passenger service. 

"So as an air carrier, it's very difficult to continue to fly those routes with very few passengers," she said. "They don't have the financial ability to be able to do that."

She said she was pleased that the fall economic statement by the federal government indicated support for regional air service and said she is interested in seeing the details of the plan. 

She called for a layered approach to making air travel safer —  including measures such as rapid testing and a reduced quarantine requirement depending on the outcome of the test.

Ultimately, she said, she would like to see PCR testing at the airport once more of the population has been vaccinated. 

Carter said maintaining the cargo capacity of the airport will be key to the distribution of vaccines.

"Passenger service is really important, but so, too, is cargo service and things like medevac flights," she said.

"So when you think about the vaccine, airports are standing ready on the distribution of that, and we look forward to the day that it's widely distributed."

With files from CBC Mainstreet and Shaina Luck