I need to premise this post by disclaiming that I am directly employed by an airline, but I am also a proud Nova Scotian who cares about my community. As always, my blogs represent my opinions alone.
On October 14, 2020, WestJet announced that they are essentially ending almost all service to Atlantic Canada. The only remaining limited flights will be between Toronto and Halifax, Halifax and St. John’s, Newfoundland. So, how did we get here?
As the COVID pandemic hit Canada, the Atlantic Provinces (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador) independently imposed travel restrictions. Everyone entering from any other Canadian province would have to self-isolate for 14 days In the case of New Brunswick if you were not a resident or have a valid reason to come you would not be permitted to enter. The Atlantic provinces saw very low COVID cases as compared to the other provinces. In the summer the Atlantic provinces formed the Atlantic Bubble, allowing travel between the Atlantic provinces without the need to self-isolate, as long as the traveller has not been outside the Atlantic Bubble in the previous 14 days. The idea is simple, keep the COVID cases low in the Atlantic region, but encourage regional travel to boost the suffering tourism and travel industry.
While the initial provincial restrictions and now the Atlantic Bubble have been successful in keeping COVID under control it has come at a cost. It is dispositionally costing the Atlantic provinces valuable tourism dollars, businesses, and jobs. At the start of the summer other provinces began to open up, people went back to work and travellers began domestic vacations. But anyone entering or returning to the Bubble requires two weeks of self-isolation, an unrealistic option for most folks. Who would come to Nova Scotia to self-isolate in a hotel for two weeks before even starting a vacation or business trip? It is undeniable that the Atlantic Provinces have a disadvantage over the rest of Canada. Still, support for the Bubble remains strong.
Cuts made to smaller stations by Air Canada in June were only the start of what was to come if things did not change. Those Air Canada cuts were disproportionately in Atlantic Canada. WestJet has publicly stated from the start of the pandemic its intention to maintain services to all its Canadian destinations, although with less frequency, with the hope that demand would sustain even the most limited services. There is a business advantage to maintain a skeleton infrastructure that has been built up over decades. To shut down and start back up uses far more resources and is far more challenging.
During the pandemic, I have continued to work throughout the country and observed an improving trend in travel everywhere except entering and leaving the Atlantic Bubble. Passenger loads in and out of the Atlantic Bubble of both WestJet and Air Canada have been weak, and as WestJet has now indicated, unsustainable.
Aviation travel, whether for business or leisure, is a great indicator of how well a regional economy is doing. The International Air Transport Association, IATA, estimated in 2017 the aviation sector in Canada directly supported 214,000 jobs, and indirectly supported 391,000 supply chain, employee spending, and tourism jobs. The industry was also estimated to contribute $49 billion USD to Canada’s GDP. Without the pandemic, those total job numbers could have reached over 872,000 and $79.8 billion USD towards GDP by 2037. When we see a reduction of services and the loss of jobs there is a ripple effect that will play out far beyond the imediate cuts.
Now we are in a situation where vital air connections are being severed. This will increase the costs of air travel and reduce competition. For example, if you live in Moncton you have the choice of flying one available carrier to Toronto or drive to Halifax. With fewer flights, airports will need to cover costs by increasing fees that are passed on to passengers. With fewer flights, there will less departure and arrival options. With fewer flights, there will be fewer airport options for eating or renting a car. The airlines lose, the airports lose, vendors lose, and Atlantic Canadians lose too.
WestJet’s cuts are getting a lot of attention, but this downward trend can be stopped, or at least slowed. Financial support or bailouts for airlines are not popular and are politically dangerous. I agree that throwing money at airlines to fly empty planes is not the solution. The number one solution is increasing demand to get and maintain vital air services. Smaller municipalities and airport authorities across the country have long expressed that if folks want convenient air service they have to use the service or it won’t stay. The elimination of the 14-day quarantine is important to make travel in and out of Atlantic Canada more appealing and safer. I have been tweeting about the future of rapid COVID testing to reduce or eliminate self-isolation. Atlantic Canada could be a leader in science-based COVID management. Look at Iceland, for example. They give travellers the option to take a COVID test upon arrival or completing a 14-days quarantine. After the first negative test travellers can continue as normal (while still physically distancing and wearing a mask) for 5 days when a second test is completed. If we think about the money being lost in Atlantic Canada through the loss of business and tourism, the costs of such tests would be worth it. With new rapid tests, results can be obtained within 15 minutes and at a far lower cost. Increasing demand by making travel in and out of Atlantic Canada more desirable is the first step, but supporting airports and vendors is important too. These businesses are suffering and additional costs just get passed on to passengers, stifling demand.
In summary, I believe in the purpose and success of the Bubble, but we need a game plan to take advantage of science and find a way forward. Waiting for the COVID numbers in the rest of Canada or waiting for a vaccine is putting our future in Atlantic Canada in the hands of others. We need to act now to save what we have and protect our future. The longer we wait the harder we will suffer. I encourage everyone to get in touch with their MPs and MLAs and tell them to take control of our future and act now.