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Local airport authority CEO says this year may prove even tougher than anticipated
The organization managing St. John's International Airport now believes 2021 could end up being a harder year than it initially anticipated, based on decisions airlines have made early on.
WestJet announced Thursday it will temporarily suspend St. John’s operations effective March 19, citing ongoing instability in the air travel sector. The company said the suspension is expected to last for about three months, with flight service set to resume June 24.
This news comes hot on the heels of other recent route cancellations linked to a downward trajectory in air travel amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have continued to operate in the face of uncertainty as domestic and international travel restrictions and quarantines have caused demand to plummet," Ed Sims, WestJet president and CEO, stated in a news release. "Unfortunately, with new and increasingly restrictive policies, we are left once again with no other option than to suspend service to these communities."
We’ll be temporarily suspending service to St. John’s, NL, London, ON, and Lloydminster and Medicine Hat, AB, as of March 19. We plan to resume service to these communities as of June 24. Guests with impacted travel will be contacted directly. https://t.co/XYkfadtoEq pic.twitter.com/FMAjTCyF44— WestJet (@WestJet) February 18, 2021
Airport authority reaction
St. John's International Airport Authority (SJIAA) CEO Peter Avery was not altogether surprised by the announcement, but admitted it wasn't an outcome they'd anticipated at the beginning of the year or when the organization prepared its 2021 operating budget.
"With the change in the pandemic and the restrictions, obviously now that we can't fly to Halifax without a 14-day quarantine on their end, it's not surprising," Avery told The Telegram.
The pause on St. John’s operations comes less than a week after public health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador implemented Alert Level 5 in response to rising COVID-19 cases, effectively putting the province in lockdown. Nova Scotia recently announced people entering the province from Newfoundland and Labrador would have to self-isolate for a two-week period.
Spread out over the course of a full year, Avery estimates the loss of the St. John's-to-Halifax route filled at 25 per cent capacity would result in a $500,000 hit to SJIAA’s revenue from airport improvement fees. WestJet was using a 78-seat Dash 8-400 plane for the route, which was down to three flights a week. Last October, WestJet cut the direct St. John’s-to-Toronto route. At that time, the St. John’s-to-Halifax service operated with 11 weekly flights.
Avery said he hopes this marks the bottom in terms of cuts affecting the St. John's airport. Passenger traffic was down 75 per cent for 2020 compared to 2019 at the airport, and the SJIAA budgeted it would be down 80 per cent this year compared to 2019. Air Canada pulled its direct flight to Toronto in January, and with this news from WestJet, Avery fears the 80 per cent figure was overly optimistic.
"Now it appears it could be even worse than that, unfortunately, with these recent announcements," he said.
Avery said he received a call from WestJet Wednesday afternoon and was told advanced bookings were not where they needed to be for the company to continue offering the route.
"What they had told me, they had hoped to keep the flight continuing until things hopefully got better in the spring, but looking at the advanced bookings further out, it didn't meet their threshold to keep the flight on," Avery said.
According to the news release, WestJet is operating at more than a 90 per cent reduction year-over-year. The company announced similar plans Thursday to cease service to London, Ont., and Lloydminster and Medicine Hat, Alta.
Avery said he was perplexed by the airline's move to push back its service resumption date to the early summer, and would ideally hope to see WestJet flights return to St. John's sooner.
"It really all depends on what happens with our province, Number 1, with the case counts and the (B117) variant and the recent surge," Avery said. "I think things are happening across the country — case counts are coming down consistently. I think that's trending in a good way. I also think it depends on, as WestJet indicated, what happens around additional measures that might need to be put in place to prevent these sorts of outbreaks in the future."
Specifically, he could see point-of-entry and point-of-exit testing on the horizon.
"I think if WestJet and other airlines like Air Canada see those additional measures being put in place, that will give them greater optimism to be able to book. But it's very difficult for somebody to book when they have to have a 14-day quarantine on either end."
Sims addressed the testing and quarantining issues in Thursday's news release.
"Our ability to return to markets remains directly correlated to government policies and the prioritization of a domestic travel program," Sims said. "As we look ahead to contributing to the economic recovery of Canada, the relationship between testing and quarantine must evolve based on data and science."
With WestJet suspending the St. John's-to-Halifax route, the only way to fly from St. John's to mainland Canada is by taking one of the daily Air Canada flights to Halifax or Montreal. PAL also continues to offer a twice-a-week flight to Moncton, N.B., with a stopover in Deer Lake.
"I think it's safe to say that we're really hoping that we'll continue to have two strong national carriers that can give us good connectivity to major hubs like Toronto and also into Halifax," Avery said. "We need that year-round, and we think our two major carriers are probably our best bet to do it."
Andrew Robinson is a business reporter in St. John's.