Air Canada is halting flights on 30 domestic routes and closing operations at eight airports as demand for fares remains weak amid travel restrictions due to COVID-19.
Air Canada said it will close operations at airports that include Bathurst, N.B., Kingston and Gaspé, Que., and “indefinitely” suspend routes that include Moncton-Halifax, Regina-Winnipeg, and service to Ottawa from five cities: Fredericton, Moncton, Regina, Saskatoon and London, Ont.
“These structural changes to Air Canada’s domestic regional network are being made as a result of continuing weak demand for both business and leisure travel due to COVID-19 and provincial and federal government-imposed travel restrictions and border closures, which are diminishing prospects for a near- to mid-term recovery,” Air Canada said.
Air Canada and other tourism and hospitality companies have lobbied governments to loosen the travel restrictions they say are hampering any economic rebound and costing thousands of jobs.
John Gradek, a lecturer on aviation management at McGill University, said the cancelled flights include thinly travelled routes in smaller centres as well as to larger cities Air Canada has served for decades. It is “interesting” that so many Ottawa routes were cancelled, he said, amid the airline’s lobbying campaign and the federal government’s rejection of bailouts.
“There’s a message there, right? If you’re an MP in Ottawa and you happen to live in Regina or Saskatoon, there goes your flight,” Mr. Gradek said. “They are telling those MPs either fly on your special jet or fly commercial on a connection over Montreal or Toronto.”
(The ridings in the five cities losing Ottawa service are represented by MPs from the Liberal, Conservative, NDP and Green parties.)
Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesman, said politics had nothing to with the cuts. “These are all business decisions,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “The profitability of the regional network relies heavily on connectivity to our domestic and international markets, and it is impossible to sustain these routes with only local traffic.”
Canada’s largest airline has laid off 20,000 people – more than half its staff – and grounded more than 200 planes as it lost $1-billion in the first quarter when governments closed borders and imposed quarantines on travellers to slow the deadly virus. Air Canada has reduced its schedule by 85 per cent and said travel demand will not recover to 2019 levels for three years.
Paolo Fongemie, mayor of Bathurst, which has a population of 12,000, said the loss of the city’s only air service will make it harder to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.
“It is a hard hit for us, especially for our business community that uses that flight frequently for meetings in Montreal, or transit to Ottawa or Toronto,” Mr. Fongemie said by phone.
Until the COVID-19 restrictions, the Bathurst-Montreal flights ran two or three times a day, depending on the season, and carried as many as 50,000 people a year. “It was a major link for us,” Mr. Fongemie said.
The region was facing hard times even before the pandemic, losing the Brunswick Smelter in Belledune in late 2019. The nearby Caribou mine closed in late March. And travel restrictions signal a dim tourism season ahead.
On Friday, travel will reopen among residents of the Atlantic provinces, but non-essential visits from the rest of Canada are banned, and others must quarantine for two weeks on arrival.
“It is blows after blows after blows with this pandemic,” Mr. Fongemie said. “So it’s getting hard on the morale, I have to admit. When the pandemic will be over, our normal economic activities will restart and hopefully the flight will be back.”
Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport, was not available for an interview on Tuesday. In a statement, he called Air Canada’s announcement “an unfortunate development.”
“This decision by Air Canada will be very disappointing to the residents and communities affected by these service cuts,” Mr. Garneau said. “We understand the impact this will have on many Canadians across the country and we continue to work with Canadian airlines and airports during this challenging time.”
Airlines pressed Ottawa for industry-specific bailouts, but had to settle for wage subsidies and the offer of loans with commercial interest rates and conditions that included executive salary caps and bans on share buybacks.
In addition to two-week self-isolation periods upon entering Canada, travellers within the country are restricted from going to some provinces and regions. The Canada-U.S. border is closed to non-essential travel until July 21, and foreign visitors are not allowed.
The European Union said on Tuesday it is reopening its borders to visitors from 14 countries, including Canada.
Public health officials say the restrictions are needed to limit the spread of COVID-19, keep people healthy and reduce the burdens on health care systems.
Toronto’s Porter Airlines said on Monday its suspension of all operations will be extended until Aug. 31. Sunwing Airlines and Air Transat are grounded until July 31 and 23, respectively, and WestJet Airlines is flying a reduced schedule.
Air Canada said the timing of the suspensions and shutdowns will be governed by requirements for regulatory notice. Affected customers will be offered alternative flight plans, the company said.
What routes were suspended by Air Canada?
Maritimes/Newfoundland and Labrador:
- Deer Lake-Goose Bay;
- Deer Lake-St. John’s;
- Saint John-Halifax;
- Gander-Goose Bay;
- Gander-St. John’s;
- Wabush-Goose Bay;
- Goose Bay-St. John’s.
- Baie Comeau-Montreal;
- Baie Comeau-Mont Joli;
- Gaspé-Iles de la Madeleine;
- Gaspé-Quebec City;
- Sept-Iles-Quebec City;
- Val d’Or-Montreal;
- Mont Joli-Montreal;
- Rouyn-Noranda-Val d’Or;
- North Bay-Toronto
- Bathurst (New Brunswick)
- Wabush (Newfoundland and Labrador)
- Gaspé (Quebec)
- Baie Comeau (Quebec)
- Mont Joli (Quebec)
- Val d’Or (Quebec)
- Kingston (Ontario)
- North Bay (Ontario)
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