Even with a vaccine, how quickly might people return in numbers to air travel in Atlantic Canada and beyond?
“Will people, once they feel comfortable, will they snap back to their old habits? We know there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” said Monette Pasher, executive director with the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, when asked about a recovery ahead.
Even with widespread vaccinations, other factors do come into play. Public health restrictions are one, but consumer confidence is another. Pasher said a lot of effort has gone into addressing both, with more to come. “You know, there could be a new digital passport where people have to show they were vaccinated, or a mix between that and testing to begin until we get there,” she said, with the goal being anything approaching pre-COVID traffic levels.
Looking ahead, she said there are no set expectations on the timeline for travel recovery, given the uncertainties involved, but the thinking is domestic flights will ramp up first.
Demand is tough to pin down. Personal finances may not allow for some people to fly for quite a while even if they want to and in other cases corporate travel budgets could be cut in favour of online connections and platforms.
For air carriers and airports, there is an eye to capacity—in staff (after tens of thousands of layoffs), planes, routes. Pasher said airports will work on it but restoring lost access in Atlantic Canada is largely dependent on carrier bottom lines.
Air Canada “indefinitely suspended” 30 routes across the country in June, including 14 in Atlantic Canada. However, in its third quarter, it also reported an operating loss of $785 million, compared to operating income of $956 million for the same quarter pre-COVID. Further cuts to routes followed in December.
“Air Canada cannot predict the full impact or timing for when conditions improve,” the company stated.
WestJet is similarly uncertain on the timeline of when the ramp-up starts and how fast demand might recover. WestJet announced in mid-October it was no longer flying to Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney and Charlottetown, while cutting back on service to St. John’s and Halifax. The cuts took effect Nov. 2, ending more than 100 flights weekly.
“Our intent is to return to the region as soon as it becomes economically viable to do so,” said Morgan Bell with WestJet public relations. •