Air traffic 'moving in the right direction' at regional airports in northeast

Air traffic in and out of some of the regional airports in the northeast, is starting to pick up with more passengers on those planes, but they’re not out of the woods just yet.

Airport experts in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie both say they're seeing more passengers, additional flights

The Sudbury airport recently saw an increase in Air Canada flights from one to two per day.

Air traffic in and out of the Sudbury and Sault Ste Marie airports is starting to pick up with more passengers on planes, but their Chief Executive Officers say they're not out of the woods just yet.

The aviation industry took a big hit because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Non-essential travel was non-existent over the 16 months, and many airports struggled.

Now that restrictions are lifting, and more people are fully vaccinated, things are looking up for those who work in aviation.

"We're starting to see some growth and some pickup of traffic." said Todd Tripp, CEO for the Greater Sudbury Airport. "We hope to see better activity come the Stage three reopening on Friday."

Todd Tripp is the CEO of the Greater Sudbury Airport. He says after the 16-month ordeal with the pandemic, flights are starting to increase and more passengers are on those planes. (Roger Corriveau/CBC)

According to Tripp, Air Canada has increased its flights from the airport to twice a day. Porter has announced it will return its services in October, and Sunwing will begin operating from the airport in December.

Prior to the pandemic, Air Canada scheduled seven flights a day from the Sudbury Airport, Porter had three or four flights a day and Bearskin seven to eight flights a day.

Terry Bos, president and CEO of the Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corporation says there have been noticeable improvements in recent weeks as the province gradually reopens. 

Encouraging in Sault Ste. Marie

In June, he says there were more than five times as many passengers travelling through the Sault airport compared with the same month last year. And while the number of flights and passengers are still well below pre-pandemic levels, Bos is feeling hopeful.

"Overall things are certainly looking encouraging, and it's the first time in a long time that things have actually looked promising and encouraging, so it seems to be moving in the right direction finally," he said.

Air Canada also increased its flights out of the Sault Ste. Marie Airport from once to twice a day. Porter is also set to return in October. Bos said Bearksin Airlines continued to offer flights from the Sault throughout the pandemic, just with a reduced flight schedule. Pre-pandemic those numbers were five flights a day for Air Canada, three for Porter and six from Bearskin.

A smiling man in a suit wearing glasses.
Terry Bos is the president and CEO of the Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corporation. (Sault Ste Marie Airport Development Corporation)

The Sault airport has been relying heavily on government wage subsidies to survive the pandemic. Bos said they qualified for the maximum amount. They also reduced the workforce down to just full-time staff.

"That's certainly helped quite a bit." 

Bos says when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the airport did have a rainy day fund it had built up.

"We just weren't expecting a rainy day to last 15 to 16 months," he said.

No government help for Sudbury

Because of how the Greater Sudbury Airport is set up it was not able to apply for the same type of government subsidy that the Sault Airport was able to draw on. Tripp said their finances and reserve funds have depleted over the past 16 months, and they were not able to acquire any federal or provincial relief.

"Sadly we don't see anything coming from the government in the near future." 

The airport does have a borrowing agreement with the City of Greater Sudbury.

Tripp compares the situation to relying on the city as it might a bank.

The Greater Sudbury Airport does have other funding requests before the government, but nothing has materialized, he said.

Over the past 16 months, Tripp said no employee was laid off from the airport, however vacant positions were not filled during that time.

Tripp attributes the staff at the Greater Sudbury Airport for the reason they're still around despite the halt to non-essential travel.

"I think it's their hard work and their solidarity behind us that have made us where we are today, in keeping this airport open," he said.

Tripp would like to see a federal recovery plan for all regional airports across the country. He says major airports have had some support, but it's the smaller airports that now need help.

"The federal government needs to step up and look at regional airports," said Tripp.

And as for when the aviation industry could see a full recovery, both Tripp and Bos believe that will come sooner than many had been predicting.

"I think we're going to see some growth happening faster than we thought and I think that will be very helpful for us, but we will soldier through this," Tripp said.

"I think we're going to see a strong steady build over the next 18 to 24 months, and I think probably within three to five years we'll be back to where we were pre-pandemic," Bos said.

With files from Jonathan Pinto