Canadian communities are pleased that the government has promised to support our battered travel and tourism sectors. WestJet’s recent announcement eliminating all routes east of Montreal except Halifax and St. John’s, and the previous announcement of Air Canada to suspend indefinitely 30 regional routes, is a stark reminder of how badly air travel has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
The Canadian Global Cities Council (CGCC), made up of nine of Canada’s largest urban Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade, works with organizations like the Canadian Airports Council to promote national policies to sustain and grow competitive and sustainable urban economies. Canada’s air transport sector plays an essential role, connecting our country and growing our economy.
We commend the Government of Canada on moving quickly to keep Canadians healthy and supporting citizens during the pandemic. The aviation community – airports, airlines, NAV Canada, and others – played an important role, keeping travelers and workers safe and healthy. This industry has taken extraordinary measures to protect the movement of critical workers and goods, and to implement globally accepted health measures to ensure air travel is as safe as it can be.
But even with the welcome announcement of a loosening of quarantine rules as part of the rapid testing pilot at Calgary International Airport, the aviation sector is in crisis and urgently needs help. With international and some provincial borders closed and 14-day quarantine restrictions still in place for most of the country, and with no clear path forward, COVID-19 is devastating an industry that until this year had been thriving and supporting growth in tourism, trade and immigration. The impact on our communities and businesses from the collapse in air travel will be profound if the sector is financially constrained once Canadians are ready to travel again.
Until the pandemic shut down air travel, we all benefited tremendously from the sector’s three-decade expansion. Not-for-profit airport authorities invested $30 billion from air travelers into capital infrastructure projects that hired locally, improved terminals and runways, attracted new air services, and enhanced the passenger experience.
Airlines invested billions of dollars in state-of-the-art aircraft, increased services to small communities and expanded domestic and international routes to destinations across Canada. This in turn generated tens of thousands of local tourism and hospitality jobs.
Canada has a world-class aviation sector, built and paid for by users. Not only have our airports supported community goals and enhanced our quality of life, they’ve paid taxes to all levels of government, including more than $6.5 billion in ground lease rent since 1992 to their “silent partner,” the federal government.
But the system cannot function without travelers. Since April, air traffic in Canada has fallen 92 per cent from 2019. Next year doesn’t look much better, with 2021 passenger traffic numbers projected to be down by two thirds compared with 2019. Revenue losses are in the billions of dollars across airports, airlines, and NAV Canada. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost – almost half of the aviation workforce. Capital projects to enhance connectivity and safety have been put on hold while the sector borrows billions just to maintain operations. This situation is not sustainable and can jeopardize future airport capacity, international competitiveness and economic growth.
To ensure the short and long-term viability of our aviation sector, we ask the government to:
- Provide immediate help to aviation organizations including a moratorium on airport ground lease rents until traffic recovers; interest-free loans; operational support or other relief measures.
- Work with both airports and airlines to create the conditions to restore regional air services and connect major centres with Canada’s regions.
- Expand national transportation infrastructure funding to help the air sector meet new safety, security, and accessibility requirements.
- Advance a nationally consistent and internationally aligned rapid testing regime to build confidence in air travel and safely remove restrictions on the movement of people across international and provincial borders.
- Provide national leadership to safely remove travel restrictions in conjunction with provinces, health authorities and the international community.
The matter is urgent. We must restore Canada’s air transport sector as a catalyst of social and economic growth.
Patrick Sullivan is president and CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Canadian Global Cities Council. Daniel-Robert Gooch is president of the Canadian Airports Council.