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The latest blow to air service in and out of Sydney was met with shock and disappointment in Cape Breton business and political circles after Air Canada announced a further suspension of flights.
In a press release issued Tuesday morning from the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport, Air Canada’s decision to suspend air service from Sydney to Toronto and Halifax, effective Jan. 11, 2021, was outlined.
The Sydney Jazz aviation station will also be closed until further notice.
“I think that this is a massive loss to our entire island and to our region,” said Kathleen Yurchesyn, CEO of the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Simply put, accessibility via air to our island is absolutely integral to not only our sustainability as a region but our growth as a region.”
Yurchesyn also noted the job losses at the airport related to the news, good ones in sector-specific areas.
“This is not an announcement in isolation. There’s going to be a lot of people affected by this, businesses, community members, families and it goes on and on.”
Misty MacDonald, the new executive director with the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce, also weighed in on the latest Sydney airport news, noting that active transportation infrastructure is vital to Atlantic Canada’s current and future economic and social activities.
“The Strait Area Chamber of Commerce remains optimistic that the board of directors and management of the J.A. McCurdy Sydney Airport, along with partners in economic development will develop a recovery strategy to restore operations,” she wrote, in a media statement.
Air service at Sydney was already on shaky ground after Air Canada recently extended its suspension of flights between Sydney and Halifax until Feb. 1.
It was the second time the service suspension had been extended and flights between those two cities haven’t taken place since early November.
WestJet had also announced route suspensions that include Sydney.
“We knew the airport was in a rough state and we knew COVID was playing a part but I really don’t think many of us thought Air Canada would pull out completely,” said Earlene MacMullin, deputy mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
“We can be optimistic, perhaps and maybe the first of the vaccines was put out worldwide today, so maybe in a couple of months you will see they start putting things back. But, when there’s no set date and it is just … I don’t know. It is very worrisome.”
Economic recovery without an airport will be difficult said MacMullin, who is currently filling in as mayor for Amanda McDougall. Its impacts on tourism could be significant as well.
At Destination Cape Breton, there’s also concern over Air Canada’s announcement.
“Air access into our airport had been in a strong and growing position pre-COVID and tremendous effort, led by the airport, had been invested into attracting and maintaining air service,” said Terry Smith, CEO of Destination Cape Breton.
“It is absolutely imperative for the future of our tourism industry that the Sydney airport receive funding immediately to remain viable until we can get past this pandemic.”
CAPE BRETON MPS WEIGH IN
Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway was also disappointed by Tuesday’s airport news and immediately reached out to the Minister of Transport Marc Garneau and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland.
“They both almost instantaneously got back to me and understood the issue in the community and are working on assistance for regional airports and airlines,” he said during an interview from his office in Dominion.
“Do I wish that was today? 100 per cent. Why? The airport is critical to transportation, it’s critical to economic development, education, health and leisure and I also think of the people that work there.”
He plans to advocate for measures to help the airport sooner rather than later and pointed to the potential for some assistance from the recent Fall Economic Update which included additional support for the tourism sector and regional development air tourism transportation initiatives.
The Sydney airport may also be eligible for dollars from the Airports Capital Assistance Program announced in the update
Agreements must also be reached with airlines, he said.
“If you look at the fall economic statement and the monies that are going to be invested to recharge the economy, we are going to need to have a robust quality airport so we can’t lose one iota of what we have,” said Kelloway.
“In fact, I would advocate we need to look at more infrastructure enhancements for the airport. I’m disappointed by today but it has only strengthened my resolve to work with those cabinet ministers and other MPs that have regional airports that have been affected.”
In a statement, MP Jaime Battiste called the airport vital to the community and noted the federal government has recognized the impact of COVID-19 on small airports across the country.
“My heart goes out to the Cape Bretoners employed by the Sydney airport who are forced to face this period of personal uncertainty during a time of global uncertainty,” the MP for Sydney-Victoria wrote.
Battiste also noted the potential for supports and funding in the Fall Economic Statement, calling them important first steps.
He said he’s been in contact with Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the airport, during the current crisis and will continue to work with him to leverage all financial supports.
PLAN OF ACTION
Shock and disappointment will soon turn into a plan of action for many members of the business community.
MacMullin said a wide range of groups and organizations including the municipality, the chamber of commerce, Cape Breton Partnership and others plan to meet in the coming days.
She’s hoping a funding stream or positive suggestions can come from the meeting.
“I’m going to be optimistic in hopes that when we all get together we can figure out a path forward,” she said. “We have until January.”
Kelloway said a similar meeting involving many organizations took place several weeks ago and isn’t surprised plans to meet again will be moved up in light of recent news.
“I have always believed if this community is going to grow and evolve we have to be swinging in the same direction,” he said.
“I think that’s what is happening here. We all know what is at stake. I know what is at stake. I know the expectations of me as a politician. But I also know the expectations as a community at large to not just keep what we have but to grow it.”
Greg McNeil is the business reporter at the Cape Breton Post.
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