Nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, the Halifax Stanfield International Airport is planning for the aviation sector’s restart and recovery.
The airport’s president and CEO Joyce Carter said the airport has seen a 90 per cent decline in business since the beginning of the pandemic.
“If you were to come to the airport today, it certainly looks quite different than it did just a year ago in 2019,” she told NEWS 95.7’s The Rick Howe Show. “Certainly, aviation is a complex industry. It will not come back quickly, but we have been really focused on being sure that we continue to be here to serve as we’ve always done.
“It’ll take a while to get those services back. We had 46 destinations at the start of the pandemic and today we have only four.”
Those four locations include St. John’s, Montreal, Toronto and Calgary. Currently, only Air Canada and West Jet are servicing those locations from Halifax.
“It took decades to build that service up and certainly will take some time to rebuild it,” Carter said. “But we’re very focused on that and it’s a priority for us — for sure — coming out of the pandemic.”
To help stay afloat, the airport cut a lot of its services and laid off numerous staff to reduce expenses.
“We have closed areas of the terminal building, we have closed parts of our parking facility, we have shut down escalators,” she said. “We have literally reduced our operations as much as we can knowing that we need to continue to stay open.”
But none of the cuts to expenses have helped the airport match its current revenue.
The airport leases its space from the federal government and normally pays rent. Due to the pandemic, the government waived that rent for the past year.
But Carter said it's not helpful because the amount of rent paid depends on how much revenue the airport makes. With only 10 per cent of its business, the airport doesn't make enough for the wavier to be significant.
Carter said she’s also asked the federal government numerous times for funding but hasn’t received anything.
In October 2020, the Halifax International Airport Authority announced it was increasing its Airport Improvement Fees by $7 beginning Jan. 4. But even that hasn’t managed to make a significant difference.
“Literally every day we stay open, it causes us to add to our debt,” Carter said. “The sad part of that is that it takes away liquidity for future development.
“As we come out of the pandemic and start to recover, we’re going to need every cent of our liquidity to allow us to do that.”
In the interview with NEWS 95.7, Carter said the airport was going to borrow money to stay open.
In 2020, the airport saw just over 995,000 passengers — the first time since 1972 the airport has served fewer than one million passengers.
With Health Canada approving the use of the country’s fourth COVID-19 vaccine, Canada should eventually see travel restrictions loosen and potentially more passengers use air travel.
But some passengers and airlines are dependant on travel restrictions.
Porter Airlines suspended its service almost immediately when the pandemic began. It was set to resume its service on March 29 but has deferred its resumption until May 19.
However, Carter said this isn’t a firm opening and that Porter will likely only reopen when travel restrictions end.
“The carriers are looking at the conditions that exist, and it’s very difficult for the majority,” she said. “As you can imagine, it’s hard to plan because there’s no demand.
“Typically for a carrier, they’d be able to look at bookings well into the future. Now, people are either not booking at all or only those who are essential to travel are, and the booking times are very short.”
One positive thing for Halifax's airport is Air Canada's recent announcement that it's shifting some of its resources.
On Monday, Air Canada announced that Halifax-based Chorus Aviation’s subsidiary, Jazz Aviation, will become the exclusive operator of all Air Canada Express flights.
Carter said this is a good announcement for Halifax.
“Jazz [Aviation] is a really important player in our market,” she said. “They are stationed here, and so Air Canada is going to be very focused on the markets it does serve. In particular, the smaller markets and what that looks like going forward.”
While it's a small positive for the Halifax airport, the airport said in a news release earlier this year that it'll be difficult to survive the pandemic with a lack of passenger traffic and government support.
“We know we have to be here to serve the community,” Carter said. “Certainly, it’s who we are; we don’t exist just for ourselves.
“It’s a critical piece of transportation infrastructure. We don’t have the option to just shut down when times are bad.”