Northern Ontario essential workers not unnerved by travelling in pandemic, but industry worried about future

While most people are hunkered down at home, there are still some travelling during COVID-19. Trains, buses and airplanes are still crisscrossing northern Ontario, but not nearly as many as before.

Northern airports only seeing a handful of passengers per week, compared with thousands before the pandemic

A man wearing a mask walking in front of a building that says Greater Sudbury Airport.
Delays and cancellations at Pearson Interational in Toronto is spilling over into the airports of northeastern Ontario, just as travelers start to return after two years of the pandemic. (Erik White/CBC )

You can still see the classic scene of a man kissing his wife and daughter goodbye in the parking lot of the Sudbury Airport.

But these days, he puts a mask over his face as he walks toward the terminal.

There are still a few options for flying in northern Ontario during the pandemic, but most commercial flights have been cancelled.

Rocky Alajoki lives in Hawk Junction, just outside of Wawa, and works at a diamond mine in the Northwest Territories.

He normally drives about two and a half hours to Sault Ste. Marie to catch an Air Canada flight west, but when it was cancelled at the last minute, he was facing another three hours in the car to get to the Sudbury airport and then several transfers on his way across the country.

"This while the company was sending out messages to its employees to avoid public transit," says the 32-year-old.

His company has instead chartered an airplane to pick up its workers at major airports across Canada, so Alajoki catches it in Toronto.

"Personally I don't feel that nervous about it," he says about travelling during the pandemic, but it is an odd feeling when his friends and family are being told they shouldn't even leave their homes.

"Meanwhile we're continuing on our lives almost as normal. For the most part the consensus is most of us are just happy to still have jobs."

There have been major layoffs in the airline industry with the reduced flights, but many are still on the job.

The Porcupine Health Unit is warning of possible COVID-19 exposure on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Timmins and an Air Creebec flight from Timmins to Moosonee and Peawanuck. (Erik White/CBC )

Wesley Lesosky is the president of the Air Canada Component of CUPE, representing 10,000 flight attendants. 

He says about 2,200 are still working, giving safety instructions while wearing masks and gloves, but generally handling the situation well. 

"The more unnerving part for the majority of our membership is what's the next phase," he says.

Jim Holm is also wondering about how often people will travel once COVID-19 is behind them.

He is the president of Thunder Air, which has cancelled its regular passenger service between Timmins and the James Bay Coast during the pandemic, as most remote First Nations are not allowing outsiders to come into their communities.

Close to half of the workforce has been laid off, but Holm says Thunder also does charter flights, emergency medical service and delivers cargo.

He says the company should be diverse enough to survive, but he says it's likely that other northern Ontario airlines will be permanently grounded.

"It is a high cost industry. If you don't have revenue coming in, then it creates a major problem," says Holm.

"I think things will return to somewhat normal, whatever that may be, once the pandemic eases."

Bearskin Airlines refused to comment for this story, but it still has two dozen flights scheduled per month.

Although Terry Bos, president and CEO of the Sault Ste. Marie airport, says most of those end up being cancelled.

He says this spring the airport had a week with only four passengers, compared with as many as 5,000 before the pandemic.

"I suspect it's going to take sometime for passengers to feel that it's OK to travel during COVID-19," he says.

"The sooner the better obviously would be great, but I'm not holding my breath."

Ontario Northland bus are still running, but the crown corporation says ridership has dropped off by about 85 per cent during the pandemic. (Erik White/CBC )

Via Rail is still running its Budd Car train service between Sudbury and White River, but only once a week.

Ontario Northland has cancelled its Polar Bear Express train between Cochrane and Moosonee, but is still running most of its motor coach routes, just not nearly as often.

Communications manager Renee Baker says ridership is down about 90 per cent and some buses only carry a few passengers.

She says they've had university and college students heading home after the semester, business travellers, people going to care for a loved one and others going to a medical appointment in another city. 

"It's largely people travelling for essential reasons," says Baker.

"Because they don't have a choice."


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to