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As Air Canada axes more Sydney flights, future of Cape Breton air travel murky

Sydney airport to stay open for general aviation as long as it can afford to

3 min read
caption A shopper crosses in front of the empty Maritime Travel offices in Park Lane Mall Tuesday evening.
Avery Mullen

Air Canada is suspending flights between Halifax and Sydney indefinitely, along with its Toronto-to-Sydney route. The move will leave Cape Breton with no commercial airline service.

“What we have here is a community that will lose its air connectivity to Canada and the world,” said Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the J.A. McCurdy Sydney Airport, in an interview.

Air Canada had already paused the flights from Halifax until at least January. The Toronto flights will end Jan. 11.

Also cancelled indefinitely are all flights to Saint John, N.B., and some flights to Deer Lake, N.L., Charlottetown, Fredericton and Halifax.

WestJet previously cancelled its Sydney flights on Nov. 2 as part of what the Atlantic Canada Airports Association estimates to have been an 80 per cent culling of the airline’s Atlantic services.

As part of the cancellations, Air Canada will close its Jazz aviation station. Flight service stations are communications facilities that provide weather and logistical information to pilots. Jazz is a subsidiary of Halifax-based Chorus Aviation that operates regional flights for Air Canada under the name Air Canada Express.

“Station closures are the worst-case scenario for some of our region’s smaller airports, and the result will further fracture the viability of people who need to efficiently move in and out of these communities,” said the Atlantic Canadian Airports Association in a statement.

After January, the Sydney airport will still be open for private planes, medical flights, charter flights and helicopter tours.

Loss of revenue

The loss of commercial flights, though, will be a financial blow. Commercial airports make much of their revenue from the landing fees paid by airlines.

MacKinnon said the Sydney airport will continue operating for as long as possible, but “we definitely can’t keep doing this indefinitely.”

Among his concerns is the impact that the loss of air travel will have on Cape Breton’s economy.

“We still had a flight to Toronto, and that was that link that at least kept some glimmer of hope that we had a connection to the rest of the world and the country,” said MacKinnon. “Now, with that link being severed, it’s going to have significant ripple effects across the island.”

The decision comes a day after the Nova Scotia Health Authority warned travellers of two potential COVID-19 exposures on Air Canada flights between Toronto and Sydney.

Before COVID-19, tourism in Nova Scotia was projected to be worth as much as $4 billion by 2024, with just over 12 per cent of that money tied to Cape Breton, according to Tourism Nova Scotia.

And at Cape Breton University, 2,478 of the 3,705 people enrolled full-time — two-thirds — are international students. It’s a group that would usually arrive by air.

Monette Pasher, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, echoed MacKinnon’s concerns. “When the airline industry contracts, smaller communities are hit hardest and we are seeing that again today,” she said in a statement.

Promise of help

MacKinnon said he is eyeing the measures promised in the federal government’s fall economic statement hopefully.

The update included the announcement of a new Highly Affected Sectors Credit Availability Program, which would offer loans of up to $1 million with terms of up to 10 years for companies in hard hit industries. But the government has yet to release details of which businesses are eligible for loans.

The economic statement also included a promise of $980 million of funding for airports, including possible rent deferrals for government land. But MacKinnon said he worries the amount of money on offer may prove too little if it’s spread out across the country.

“I wouldn’t expect that we’re going to be able to tap into huge amounts of money to recover the losses we’ve incurred since the pandemic began in April and expect to incur going into 2021,” he said.

Even with government assistance, he said, the Sydney airport’s future ultimately hinges on a resurgence of the airline industry.

He hopes that a COVID-19 rapid-testing program at airports could help restore public confidence in air travel and bolster commercial carriers.

“We want to see the province look at that and take a more open-minded approach to that as one of the tools in the toolbox as we go forward,” he said.

In its statement, the Atlantic Canadian Airports Association said Canada is the only G7 country to have not created an airline bailout package.

John Lawford, the executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre consumer rights groups, has said previously that any bailout for airlines should be contingent on them refunding passengers for flights that were cancelled earlier in the pandemic. Many travellers have received travel credits or vouchers but not refunds.

Air Canada did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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