Gander was built around its airport. With flights grounded, residents say local businesses are suffering
Local bakery says the community has rallied to help it pull through pandemic
With the pandemic bringing Newfoundland's Gander Airport to a standstill, CEO Reg Wright now feels like "a night watchman at a museum."
"There's been a sizeable job loss at the airport. The ticket counters are largely empty. The most active people here are generally the cleaners," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.
The slowdown is bad news not just for the airport, but "critical" for the town of Gander itself, which was founded off the back of the airport's prosperity, Wright said.
"The airport came first and the town's built around it," he explained.
"Everyone here has some jet fuel running through their veins."
Built in the late 1930s, Gander's airport was a crucial refuelling stop in the decades before better engines allowed direct flights between Europe and North America. The town of Gander followed in the 1950s, and gained international fame when flights were diverted there in the hours after the 9/11 attack — detailed in the hit musical Come From Away. The airport has remained an important connection point to mainland Canada and beyond, with roughly 170,000 passengers passing through it annually in the years before the pandemic. According to its website, the airport contributes 1,260 full-time jobs and $90 million in wages to the region, and has an annual economic impact of $240 million.
With travel heavily restricted in the pandemic, Gander's 12 daily flights have been reduced to just two. Air Canada has suspended all flights in and out of Gander, which previously accounted for 70 per cent of passenger traffic and 25 per cent of the airport's total revenue, totalling $2.5 million.
In a statement to CBC News, the airline said the pandemic had led to an 80 per cent drop from the previous year, and the company would "continue to evaluate and adjust its route network" as the pandemic progressed.
The airport is also home to a Nav Canada air traffic control centre, which will be affected by impending national layoffs announced last month. A memo to staff said the company is cutting the highly skilled, highly paid jobs in response to a $518-million drop in revenue, compared to its budget due to COVID-19.
Percy Farwell, mayor of Gander, said that 51 jobs had already been lost at the centre during the pandemic, "which probably represents $6- to $7-million worth of wages in our little community."
"You can imagine the trickle down from that loss."
He said air travel injects much-needed money into the local economy that is "dependent on movement and congregation of people, and access and connection to the rest of the world."
"We're witnessing an unravelling of the national fabric, and our province and our community and region is becoming increasingly isolated."
Airport standstill hits local businesses
The slowdown and looming job cuts are "scary" for local business, said Steve Bishop, co-owner of the Gander Bread Box, a bakery and cafe a couple of kilometres from the airport.
He's run the cafe with his wife and co-owner, Marlene Bishop, for more than a decade. But when the pandemic struck last spring, they were forced to lay off their staff and pivot from running a cafe with indoor dining to just selling bread.
"You're watching your bank account dwindle and dwindle and you're thinking, how are you going to do this?" Marlene said.
The bakery used to supply sandwiches to the airport, as well as host some of its staff for meals. All that business has been lost, Steve said.
Marlene added that anyone facing unemployment is "going to really consider where they're going to spend their money."
"They might have to buy a $2 loaf of bread rather than a $3.49 loaf of bread — it will have an effect on us."
Dennis Barrow drops by with his running club in the mornings, and said it's not just "part of your routine, it becomes part of your family."
"Supporting local business is so important and there's a community, family feel to this business," he said.
Marlene said they've been "very fortunate to have the love of our customers."
Last year, a customer ordered 10 loaves of bread and asked her to ensure they had the cafe's logo on them as he would be giving them away.
"He hands me a $100 bill and he walks out the door, and this was the kind of thing that was happening," she said.
She said keeping the business running during the pandemic has been like "raising a child," but thinks the community would be affected if they had to close.
"There were times that we weren't entirely sure how we're going to do this, but you don't give up on your child and we weren't going to give up on this place," she said.
Bailouts needed to keep Canada connected: CEO
Like how the community has helped prop up small businesses, Wright said federal aid is needed to revive airlines, adding that the public should support it the way they've adopted physical distancing and mask wearing.
"We've all done things for the greater good during this pandemic, and I think people will have a hard time looking at me and saying that, 'You know, it's not in the greater good that airlines be viable on the other side of this,'" he said.
"There's not going to be economic recovery without flow and movement."
According to the federal government's fall economic update, Canadian airlines received $1.4 billion to pay up to 75 per cent of employee wages during the pandemic. Air Canada received $492 million to pay its employees over a period ending Sept. 30.
The fiscal update also pledged $1.2 billion for airports, airport infrastructure, and regional airlines. But while other countries have offered billions to help airlines weather COVID-19, the federal government has so far held off on a tailored bailout package, despite pleas from the industry.
Katherine Cuplinskas, a spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, told The Current in an emailed statement that the federal government is "committed to supporting Canadians airlines," and is engaged in "ongoing conversations."
She said further support from taxpayers would depend on reaching agreement over refunding Canadians for cancelled flights, retaining and reinstating regional routes and protecting jobs across the sector.
Wright said he understands customer frustration with airlines that aren't returning money spent in good faith. But he pointed to the larger task of keeping Canada connected.
"Aviation is the load-bearing wall that holds it all together," he told Galloway.
"You're losing services in vital places like Yukon, Cape Breton Island, Saint John, Fredericton, New Brunswick — a capital. It's unheard of, what's happening," he said.
"You're seeing these dots just wiped off the map."
Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Ben Jamieson, with additional reporting from Leigh Anne Power.
This story is the first stop in Canada's Road Ahead, The Current's series talking to Canadians about how the pandemic has changed their lives, and what comes next.