More than 25 local employees will be laid off including ground handling and security staff, after Air Canada cut flights to the city on Jan. 13. Only a skeleton staff will be kept on to ensure the safety and the viability of the airport and also so runways are maintained, Rick Leach Prince Rupert Regional Airport manager, said.
The suspension of flights, by Air Canada to and from Prince Rupert will “levee significant hardship for all the communities served by YPR,” Leach said.
Initially, flights were reported to be discontinued as of Jan. 23, but Leach said that information changed in correspondence from Air Canada later in the day. Flights will now be suspended as of Jan. 17.
“Due to the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for air travel has plummeted and this has been reflected in the cancellation of air service to many communities across Canada. (Prince Rupert Airport) YPR has not been immune to these elements,” Leach said in a media statement issued by the airport on Jan. 13.
“The Airport Authority and city leaders have all expressed dismay at this turn of events and will lobby government officials to take immediate action and provide relief to the industry,” Leach said.
“They’re (airlines) not making any money, and they continue to bleed. So they’re going to continue to turn down service, and this is not just a Prince Rupert issue, it’s more of a national issue, for both Westjet and Air Canada,” Leach told The Northern View. “And what they’re telling me is that they are bleeding enough, and the demand is low.”
Leach said, just as importantly he thinks the airlines are using the situation as a negotiation tool because they want financial support from the government like other industries have received during the pandemic.
“So, I think by closing these stations, they are trying to put pressure because they want the government to give them money,” he said.
The debate between the airlines and the government has been going for the past year Leach said, with the situation now becoming quite combative. The government wanted the airlines to refund tickets and it’s a sticking point he said, with the government not giving money to the industry if the industry is not going to reimburse customers.
“But if the government is willing to give these airlines money, then I’m assuming there’s going to be some mandates that they’ve got to return this service (to Prince Rupert), or they have to put us in the pie and give us a slice of it because we’re just as affected, if not worse actually. The airport’s now going to be in critical financial health and it’s going to become a potential burden to the city.”
“Obviously, the financial impact of the airport transfers to the city because they own the airport. So we’ve made some financial restructuring of some of our debt, which got us through the first push,” Leach said. “But now, we’re at the stage where we’re looking for another three months pause here. It’s going to further put us behind the eight ball, and we’ll have to be creative on what it is we’re going to do.”
The airport receives $24 per seat, so cancelled flights mean that revenue is lost and never able to be recouped, he said, but he believes the demand for flights from Prince Rupert will always be there because there is a reliance on air transportation.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the death of the airport, because we’re the third-largest port in Canada. So, from a business perspective, it seems very short-sighted that they wouldn’t want an airport. Then when we put in all of the surrounding communities, the First Nations communities and Prince Rupert we do rely on air service for essential services to Vancouver. I can’t see it’s going away.”
The alternative for Prince Rupert is to travel to Terrace, which places an undue burden on residents, Leach said. “The viable option of Terrace is somewhat unpalatable in the middle of winter, down Hwy 16 driving in a snow storm.”
While medical transportation flights for emergencies will not be affected, there are a lot of people who use commercial airlines to obtain medical services in Vancouver, the airport manager said.
“What this will look like also on the other side — that’ll be one thing,” he said. “Air Canada has, in my conversations, they have remained committed to the market. They haven’t given me any indication that they’re just going to move on to other things. They value the market.”
“While the future is uncertain as to when, as a society, we can return to normal, we are all committed to the return of full air service to YPR,” Leach said. “We are confident that YPR will regain our market and provide reliable, safe travel for our communities. Air Canada has indicated a resumption of service will likely occur in April and we will keep everyone apprised of our progress as we move forward.”
K-J Millar | Journalist
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