Sydney airport now has no passenger flights scheduled to arrive or depart
Air Canada, WestJet have suspended service to Cape Breton
A plane due to fly into the skies around 5:25 a.m. this morning marked the end of scheduled passenger air service in Sydney, N.S.
Air Canada's decision to indefinitely suspend all service in Cape Breton comes after WestJet ended its routes in October. Monday's Air Canada flight to Toronto is the last one scheduled to leave the airport, and none are scheduled to arrive.
"I wouldn't call it a milestone. I would call it a very difficult and sad day," said Mike MacKinnon, CEO of J.A. Douglas McCurdy airport.
The only air services operating out of Sydney now are cargo planes that visit a few days a week, along with the occasional chartered flight and medical evacuation planes.
MacKinnon said there was a glimmer of hope air service would return this year, but that optimism is diminishing.
"It appears the pace [at which] the vaccines will be distributed is not going to really help the industry very much, at least from what I've seen," he said.
Reduced operations and layoffs
Prior to the pandemic, Sydney carried flights to Halifax and Toronto, and seasonally to Montreal.
Since the start of the pandemic, the airport has been operating on cash reserves, which MacKinnon said are being depleted.
"The fixed costs to operate the airport are quite significant. It's not like someone's cottage, [where] you can shut it down, drain the water systems and go into hibernation."
MacKinnon said there will be job losses among Air Canada Jazz Aviation employees.
Throughout the pandemic, additional layoff notices were given to some airport authority employees, WestJet employees, car rental employees and restaurant staff.
'It will cut us off from the world'
Susan Reeves describes her family as international travellers.
Her husband is employed overseas in the oil and gas industry on a rotational basis, and her two sons are studying in the United Kingdom. Her in-laws are also located across the pond.
"It's not a simple process now for them to get home," she said.
Due to the recent travel restrictions, Reeves spent Christmas alone. She said the suspension of flights in Sydney has her rethinking her Cape Breton retirement dream.
"We have a lot of plans, travel plans, and plans to be here, and it will cut us off from the world, basically," Reeves said.
Having written to the prime minister and Nova Scotia's premier and received a response, Reeves is encouraging more people to voice their disappointment over the loss of air service.
Petition and push from stakeholders
A petition has been launched by Kathleen Yurchesyn, chief executive officer of the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce. It calls for immediate government action and intervention.
Yurchesyn said conversations are now ongoing with Air Canada and other community stakeholders.
"We're at a critical point in the prosperity of Cape Breton Island in terms of development, infrastructure and investment. But we have to be honest with ourselves. We cannot sustain that level of growth or attract more of that growth without access to our island."
Air Canada's website currently lists flights out of Sydney beginning on March 28. But Yurchesyn said the airline has confirmed that doesn't necessarily mean flights will be available on that date.
"Rest assured, we are absolutely working our tails off to make sure this is not something that's forgotten about," she said.
In an emailed statement, Air Canada said there has been no change to its decision to halt service at the Sydney airport.
Atlantic Canadian airports struggling
Air Canada has also indefinitely suspended all flights out of Saint John, N.B., and Toronto-bound flights out of Fredericton, N.B.
Derrick Stanford, president of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, worries the loss of passenger flights will deter people from staying in the region.
"For some folks it really calls into question the continued ability to live in Atlantic Canada, which is absolutely counterproductive to what the region is trying to do with regards to population growth and economic growth," he told CBC's Maritime Noon on Monday.
Stanford, who is also president and CEO of the Saint John Airport, said Atlantic Canada is already at a "disadvantage geographically" and depends on air travel to connect it to the rest of Canada.
"I've told people that withdrawing air service from Atlantic Canada is like cancelling bus routes in poor neighbourhoods," he said.
Stanford said it took well over a decade to build up a strong network of flights in the region, and he expects it could take five to seven years to bring that level of service back.
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With files from CBC's Maritime Noon