Air Canada cuts ‘final nail in the coffin’ for Cape Breton air service: airport CEO

A decision by Air Canada to indefinitely suspend operations in Cape Breton will have an “absolutely catastrophic” effect on the island, the CEO of Sydney’s airport said Tuesday.

Mike MacKinnon called the airline’s move “a massive blow” to the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport, which was already struggling to survive during a pandemic that has brought air travel to a near standstill.

“Our airport has been repeatedly slashed by air service cuts ever since the pandemic began and now this announcement, on top of the recent WestJet route suspensions, is effectively the final nail in the coffin for air service to/from our community for the foreseeable future,” MacKinnon said in a news release.

Air Canada suspended service between Sydney and Halifax earlier this fall. On Tuesday, the airline said service between Sydney and Toronto, now offered five days a week, would cease as of Jan. 11.

It also announced it was pulling out of Saint John, N.B., indefinitely, as well as suspending four routes in Deer Lake, N.L., Charlottetown, Fredericton and Halifax beginning Jan. 11.

Airport using reserve funds

MacKinnon noted that before the pandemic, Sydney was served by both Air Canada and WestJet. The airport had regular service to Halifax and Toronto, and seasonally to Montreal. 

Service cutbacks to the region and other parts of the Maritimes began this fall with WestJet; Air Canada suspended some its services soon after.

In an interview, MacKinnon said the recent service cutbacks mean the airport is using its reserve funds to stay open.

After the last commercial flight on Jan. 10, the airport plans to stay open for private airplanes, medevac and cargo planes that come a few times a week.

“It will be a very quiet winter and basically we’ll be going into a bit of a hibernation … working hard on recovery strategies,” said MacKinnon.

3rd major round of cuts

The Atlantic Canada Airports Association issued a statement saying the service cuts could lead to the closure of some small regional airports.

“This is the third major round of cuts to air service for our region in the last six months,” said Derrick Stanford, association president and CEO of the Saint John Airport.

“Service has been whittled down to an unsustainable level for our airports. Our industry cannot survive and operate in these conditions, and we are seeing the worst-case scenario playing out here today.

“This will have a huge impact on our region’s economy, on the ability of families to reconnect, on the movement of essential workers, and on airport employees and businesses.”

Could vaccine put travellers at ease?

MacKinnon said he’s hopeful COVID-19 vaccines — the first of which are expected to be rolled out in Canada this month on a small scale — will start to restore some public confidence in air travel.

But with widespread distribution of vaccines likely several months away, MacKinnon said he wants the provincial and federal governments to support COVID-19 testing at airports — something that has recently been piloted in Alberta and Ontario, but not administered on a large scale.

He said he was encouraged by Ottawa’s fall economic update, in which Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland mentioned support for regional airports would be coming soon. But MacKinnon would also like to see help for airlines.

“An airport is just not successful without airlines operating and without commercial air traffic,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Conservatives weigh in

Chris d’Entremont, the Conservative MP for West Nova, said Nova Scotians who depend on the aviation sector have long been calling for a plan from the federal Liberal government.

“As a result of this suspension, airport employees, rotational workers, university students and the tourism industry will be greatly impacted,” d’Entremont said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, the Trudeau government continues to leave the thousands of Canadians who rely on the aviation industry in the dark about how or if they will have jobs to return to.”

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