Cuts to WestJet service 'a major blow' to Atlantic airports as region still isolated due to COVID-19
About 80 per cent of airline's East Coast service will be gone as demand falls
Airports in Atlantic Canada are facing another "major blow" due to the COVID-19 pandemic after WestJet announced Wednesday that it will soon no longer fly to Moncton, N.B., Fredericton, Sydney, N.S., and Charlottetown and will drastically cut back its service to St. John's and Halifax.
"It's a major blow ... Any time you lose a service, that's very challenging," said Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport.
"It's not an unexpected situation. I think the writing was on the wall for some time, given the restrictive travel policies, the low passenger demand and some of the other factors involved."
The Calgary-based airline said it is eliminating 100 flights, which represent about 80 per cent of its service into and out of Atlantic Canada.
"We are just finding that the demand is not there," said Richard Bartrem, WestJet's vice-president of communications. "The Atlantic Canada bubble makes it tremendously difficult for people to move back and forth to those destinations in Atlantic Canada, and recognizing that we are simply losing a considerable amount of money every day that we're operating there."
"So until there is something like a vaccine or a testing regime that allows us to see that bubble reduced or lifted, we've got no choice but to make the difficult decision."
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only residents living within the four Atlantic provinces — New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador — may travel freely within the Atlantic bubble without the need to isolate. Canadians coming from outside the bubble must self-isolate for 14 days.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said he and the other Atlantic premiers do not plan to open the region to the rest of Canada any time soon, as a significant number of cases continue to be reported in Quebec and Ontario.
"This isn't the time that we can just throw [away] what has kept us safe to date," Higgs told CBC's Power and Politics Wednesday evening. "We do hope to continue to move forward and ultimately get our airports back in business or to look strategically at how to get the best connection for our citizens here in our province."
The new route cancellations mean that the airline will shutter its operations at the airports in Charlottetown, Moncton, Fredericton and Sydney.
The routes will be cancelled as of Nov. 2, and as a result about 100 jobs will be eliminated. Earlier this summer, Air Canada cancelled 30 routes, most of which were in Atlantic Canada.
WestJet will now only fly three routes within and outside of Atlantic Canada — to St. John's, Calgary and Toronto — all out of the Halifax Stanfield International Airport.
"The biggest blow to Halifax Stanfield as part of today's announcement is the reduction of key connections that we have within our own province to Sydney, as well as to our nation's capital of Ottawa," said Tiffany Chase, the spokesperson for the Halifax airport.
"We've worked very hard over a number of years to establish a very strong network within our region and to the rest of Canada, the [United States] and Europe. ... We expect that it will be very difficult and take quite a bit of time to get some of these services back, if ever."
Doug Newson, CEO of the Charlottetown Airport Authority, said the cuts don't come as a surprise.
"We see the numbers coming and going in the airport these days," he said.
"We see that WestJet has significantly reduced their schedule to Charlottetown over the past number of months, and the demand is simply not there for them to carry passengers at this moment — given the current travel restrictions and the conditions with the pandemic."
Both the Sydney and Charlottetown airports have been relying on capital reserves since March. Now the loss of WestJet as a carrier will only reduce revenue further.
"We, along with other airports, are hoping and optimistic that the federal government may provide some sectoral specific relief for both the airline industry and the airports, because it's certainly needed at a time right now where air travel is coming to a complete standstill," Newson said.
Newson said the Charlottetown airport does have enough capital reserves to get through a couple of years, and both he and MacKinnon are confident the cuts are only temporary.
"We're hopeful that as things improve — maybe [as] restrictions get lifted, which we're hoping will happen — that they'll be back in service sometime in the future," MacKinnon said.
"But we can't predict — I don't think anyone in 2020 can predict what is going to happen."
Following WestJet's announcement, 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 in order for us to recover economically, 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 a news conference Wednesday.
Higgs, meanwhile, said he spoke to Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc about the possibility of a stimulus package for the air travel industry, but said the federal government hasn't decided what the package might look like.
"We all are concerned about this move from WestJet ... but the fact that they did it is because the planes are empty," Higgs said.
With files from Jennifer Ludlow, Brian Higgins, Héloise Rodriguez-Qizilbash