A sad, near-empty screen shows just two daily arriving flights at the Calgary airport’s international terminal. There are more airport staff than passengers and two police officers patrol by bicycle. The airy concourse, opened less than four years ago to accommodate growing throngs of passenger traffic, is now almost completely devoid of people.
One airport staffer quipped that it felt like a zombie apocalypse.
This Canadian airport terminal in June, 2020, is a quiet, monotonous world of constant cleaning, thermal camera temperature scans and muffled conversations through masks. Besides the worry of inbound COVID-19 infections, there’s the uncertainty about how airports and related sectors will survive a drawn-out pandemic slump that could go on for years.
“It would be cheaper to close the airport now than to continue running it," said Bob Sartor, chief executive of the Calgary Airport Authority. “But that would have a devastating impact on our community.”
There are usually 24,500 passengers a day flying out of Calgary’s airport – Canada’s fourth-busiest – on domestic and international flights. At the depths of this spring’s lockdown, there were some Saturdays with only 300 departing passengers.
Now there are about 1,000 people flying out of Calgary each day, at least 95-per-cent fewer than normal.
The Starbucks and the gift shop at the international arrivals level are closed, along with more than 80 per cent of all of the airport’s eating and shopping outlets. One open restaurant at this terminal offers 50 per cent off pizza for airport staff – now the primary customer base. The currency exchange is open, although only one person appears at the plexiglass panel for a transaction during a quiet day in June. Demand for parking, rental cars, taxis and ride hailing is down more than 90 per cent.
The airport forecasts that a recovery to 2019 passenger volumes could take three to five years, or longer. Travellers won’t be returning quickly for a multitude of reasons, including the risk of second and third waves of the pandemic, the potential difficulty in getting travel health insurance, and what could be higher travel costs at a time when many people have lost their work and the economy is shaky.
Besides the absence of people, the other striking difference at the airport in the age of coronavirus is the federal and provincial screening of international arrivals for symptoms of COVID-19.
Officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada talk with the passengers on two daily flights arriving from the United States before the travellers pass into the public concourse.
But Alberta has set up a secondary system of passenger screening for international arrivals. Wearing personal protective equipment, including pale yellow medical gowns, Alberta Health Services (AHS) employees meet passengers as they come through the sliding doors into the public wing of the terminal. Everyone faces a medical questionnaire and must outline their plan to adhere to the federally mandated two-week isolation period.
There’s one key difference from the federal screening: Passengers must walk by an infrared technology thermal camera before leaving the airport.
On Friday, Ottawa announced that it will soon become mandatory for all air passengers flying out of, into or within Canada to have their temperatures checked before boarding a plane. But Alberta had already been requiring international travellers arriving to the province by both air (in Calgary and Edmonton) and by land (at the U.S.-Canada border crossing in Coutts, Alta.) to submit to temperature checks, as of last month. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said this screening is likely to be in place "indefinitely.”
Dr. Cheri Nijssen-Jordan, a medical consultant for AHS in charge of designing and implementing the province’s screening program, said staff at the Calgary airport usually see between 30 and 100 people go through each day. If anyone’s skin temperature is found to be 38 or higher as they walk by the infrared technology thermal camera, they are subject to a secondary check with a touchless thermometer.
Dr. Nijssen-Jordan views the provincial screening program as assisting with what federal officials are doing. Most passengers, she added, are patient with the process and understand there’s reason to be vigilant about trying to stop the spread of COVID-19. “We’ve had very little unhappiness," she said.
Sunny Mangat, 35, arrived back in Calgary last week after his mother-in-law’s funeral in Boston. Mr. Mangat, who works for a health care startup, said he was expecting the trip home to be more difficult than it was.
“I was overwhelmed, when I got back here, with all the questions,” he said. “But it’s a good setup. Everyone is friendly.”
In an era of travel shutdowns, who else is still flying internationally? There are still Canadians coming back from the U.S., Mexico and other countries – some were trapped or decided to shelter-in-place as pandemic lockdowns began. There are oil and gas, infrastructure and farm workers deemed essential.
And there are Canadians who are still travelling to the U.S. for a number of reasons. It isn’t widely known, but even in the midst of a ban on discretionary travel between the two countries, American authorities are still allowing Canadians into the country if they fly – not drive – with few restrictions. Some people, upon their return, tell provincial health officials they travelled simply to visit family in the U.S.
“It is a pretty wide latitude in what people are saying is essential," Dr. Nijssen-Jordan said.
If there is a small glimmer of economic optimism for the Calgary airport in recent weeks, it’s the fact the cargo business has grown through the months of the pandemic.
But airport costs are mostly fixed – and the user fees that make up much of the revenue for the airport authority have evaporated. Across Canada, airports are asking for more help from Ottawa.
Mr. Sartor said the rent relief offered by Ottawa for this year needs to be extended for multiple years to have any real impact. And although federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said airports could benefit under the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility, Mr. Sartor said the interest rates attached to the big business emergency program mean “only a madman would borrow money from that lender."
Mr. Sartor said airports need interest-free loans from Ottawa to keep operations going while they climb out of the hole created by the pandemic. “Without that, we’ll be forced to raise fees," he said.
“Airports can survive this. But boy, are they are going to be weakened.”
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