Waiting for takeoff: the future of Canadian aviation is at risk

  • National Newswatch

With airport revenues losses now projected to be $5.5 billion, federal and provincial governments must work with airports and other industry stakeholders to create a plan if we are to emerge from the pandemic with a functioning air sectorFrom the start of the pandemic, one full year ago, the air sector sought to be an active partner in governments' efforts to contain the virus and to develop a plan to emerge from the crisis ready to serve Canadians and our communities. If the federal government does not become a more engaged partner in the long-term viability and competitiveness of our air sector, we face a long, debilitating path ahead.Even with an accelerated vaccine schedule, the situation is still critical. The news is positive, but is not enough to mitigate the impact of the increased travel restrictions imposed during the last quarter of 2020 and early 2021. The Canadian Airport Council's December outlook projects that revenue losses for Canada's airports have deepened to $5.5 billion for 2020 and 2021 – a $1 billion deterioration since the last analysis was released in August. Given that 23 percent of the measures outlined in the federal Fall Economic Statement will come in the form of direct grants to address operational losses, Canada's airports expect to take on about $2.8 billion in additional debt in 2020 and 2021.It's important to understand what is at stake. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Canada's air sector not only enjoyed ten years of growth, but continually built on that growth by investing in airport and public infrastructure and expanding regional and global routes and connectivity. This commitment translated into billions of dollars in long-term investments, created tens of thousands of jobs, and supported growth in Canada's $104 billion tourism industry.We need a government-backed plan to lift travel restrictions when the time is right and support recovery, or else none of this is coming back anytime soon, if at all. It's not just airlines and airports at risk: Canadian jobs and opportunity are as well. When the Canadian air network shrinks, our entire country is diminished.We have seen other jurisdictions, including the United States, spend billions of public dollars to defend the integrity of their airports and airlines. And we have seen our own industry shrink to pre-1970s levels of demand - and revenue.After 12 wearying months of dealing with crushing passenger declines, airports are drained. They are borrowing just to keep their doors open, while airlines park their aircraft and cancel routes. Canada's air sector is essential to our economic and social wellbeing, and we must decide how it will serve us in the future.Do we restore our national network or close regional airports and force Canadians in smaller communities to drive hundreds of miles for a flight? Do we ensure Canadians have access to reasonably-priced air service or force them to drive to the U.S. for an affordable flight?It's good to remember that without the vision that built the Canadian transcontinental railway in the 19th century, there would be no Canada. Today, in the 21st century, it's aviation that binds us as a nation and connects us to the world.Our government has a critical choice to make. As Sir John A. Macdonald said when fighting for his vision of a Canada united by rail. “We are a great country and shall become one of the greatest in the universe if we preserve it; we shall sink into insignificance and adversity if we suffer it to be broken.”Joyce Carter is president and chief executive officer of Halifax International Airport Authority and chair of the Canadian Airports Council.