Without help for aviation, Kelowna flights will be a lot more difficult | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Without help for aviation, Kelowna flights will be a lot more difficult

A Kelowna International Airport employee stands outside of the airport.
January 13, 2021 - 7:00 PM

More news of Canadian airlines scaling back service as the industry struggles to keep flying under the weight of the pandemic did nothing to improve Sam Samaddar’s less-than-rosy view of the year ahead.

“We don’t anticipate reaching 2019 passenger numbers of 2 million (at Kelowna airport) until sometime in the mid to late 2020s — that’s the effect of this pandemic and the Canadian response,” Samaddar, Kelowna International Airport’s director, said.

In addition to Air Canada cutbacks, they learned today that the Toronto to Kelowna mainline service that was supposed to run through the winter has been cancelled until Feb. 11 at least.

With the loss of routes and continual airline cancellations on flights that are sparsely populated, short term projections show 2021 will leave the airport with 17 per cent of the traffic of 2019 — a complete reversal of fortune from pre-pandemic days when the Kelowna airport was continually busy, seemingly raking in cash that funded numerous expansions.

“We put aside money for something short term, but not of this magnitude,” he said, adding they didn’t expect to lose 95 per cent of their traffic. “We are fortunate. We are in better shape than most airports across the country... but that’s a small silver lining.”

If the airport numbers don’t resonate, Samaddar explained it in different terms. Ongoing news of airline curtailments are not just stories about one airport’s or airline’s success and failures.

What’s facing the aviation industry today offers a view into how Canadians, particularly in cities that aren’t air travel hubs, are going to be able to connect long after vaccinations are in arms and what that means for local families and economies that have long relied on air travel.

“The general sentiment we’re getting is a reduction in service, either by frequency or actual destinations being suspended indefinitely or a specific period of time,” he said.

That will mean, for example, if you’re wanting to fly to Toronto from Kelowna, you may have to take a connecting flight from Calgary, and once there wait six more hours for the flight to take off.

“Connectivity from one city to another is going to be much less,” he said. “If you think of the workforce, that’s going to have an effect.”

There are plenty of people who work in Liquid Natural Gas that will face an extra six hour commute home, he surmised, and once life resumes a little, face-to-face business trips many once took for granted may be a lot more difficult.

“The connectivity isn’t there and that’s a drain on the economy,” he said, adding that business travel will be the last to recover. Easily accessible business travel in more normal times is something a lot of cities have relied upon to lure industry away from larger areas.

“You won’t have connectivity available to meet demand, airfares will be more expensive and that will restrict travel. Some carriers won’t survive or won’t have the liquidity to have new flights or get crews.”

Samaddar explained it’s not like parking a car.

“This will have a catastrophic effect on aviation for some time to come,” he said. “As you shut down routes and aircraft and furlough staff you can’t easily get that back. You just can’t take the keys to an aircraft and turn it back on after it being off for two weeks … there is a whole sequence of things that need to happen.”

It could take years to rehire and retrain staff, among other things.

That, Sammadar said, didn’t or doesn’t have to be the case.

Adding his voice to a growing number of people who are calling for federal intervention to save the industry that has been “the underpinning of the economy,” Samaddar said it’s been frustrating.

“We could work with a national strategy on aviation … we are in a business that manages risk every day, but we don’t have a national strategy and each province has been doing its own thing to various levels of success or not,” he said.

Now, he said, it is time to double down because the present circumstance is grim.

“Our airport for January would normally be busy with skiers... I feel like we have gone back to April,” he said. "We’ve gotten to 1,000 (passengers a day) and now we’re back down to 300.”

Systems need to be recreated, he said, to allow for safe travel again.

“There are solutions on how to handle these things but we are stuck in shutting down the economy and using the same response when the pandemic started,” he said.

Air Canada announced Wednesday it was cutting 1,700 jobs. Last week, WestJet laid off 1,000 workers and both have said they are consequences of pandemic restrictions on travel. 

Mike McNaney, President and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents Canada’s largest national and international carriers (Air Canada, Air Transat, Jazz Aviation and WestJet), issued a statement in response to Air Canada's announcement.

"Since the pandemic began tens of thousands of aviation employees have lost their jobs, billions of dollars in aircraft have been parked, and market capacity has been reduced by more than 80% as carriers struggle to provide some level of service, and yet maintain financial viability," McNaney said. "Canada’s major airlines are still operating without sector-specific aid and are consequently losing market share to foreign competitors who have received strong sectoral support from their governments.

"Beyond public statements, we need action on financial support, and full engagement with industry to develop a truly robust and effective testing strategy that incorporates rapid antigen testing tied to quarantine and border restrictions. This is the clear path forward for aviation, and reflects the approach being taken by countries around the world.

"The decisions made by the federal government in the coming weeks and months will directly and forcefully impact the future of Canadian aviation, the future of our employees, and the future of the communities we serve," he said.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Kathy Michaels or call 250-718-0428 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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