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No guaranteed daily flights from Sydney due to COVID-19 impact

Passengers disembark from a WestJet Encore plane at the JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport Thursday. There are no flights at all from any airlines at the airport Friday. CONTRIBUTED
Passengers disembark from a WestJet Encore plane at the JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport Thursday. There are no flights at all from any airlines at the airport Friday. CONTRIBUTED
SYDNEY, N.S. —

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted local air travel at the Sydney airport.

“Not a single flight will operate Friday,” said Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport.

Air Canada has announced they will be laying off more than 16,000 employees and as a result, have ceased all remaining operations to and from Sydney to Halifax as of Thursday. MacKinnon said he was officially informed flights are suspended until the end of May.

The news comes as an addition to an earlier announcement that the Sydney to Toronto service was suspended from March 23-April 30.

MacKinnon said that leaves the airport with just a single WestJet Encore daily flight to Halifax, which is subject to change. Although West Jet is showing a flight in the schedule every day, some are being cancelled, he said.

“It’s day-by-day now,” MacKinnon said. “It’s not operating every single day. They look at how passenger traffic is moving, coming into the country and across the country and kind of assess the need for that flight to operate.”

MacKinnon only remembers one day the past six months they didn’t have any commercial flights operate and that was Jan. 17, 2020, when due to a major snowstorm, all flights were cancelled throughout Atlantic Canada.

He said it’s urgent for anyone traveling or planning to travel to reach out and talk to the airline directly to see what’s available.

However, it could be even longer before Air Canada is back. In an email response late Thursday, Pascale Déry, media relations for Air Canada, said they have suspended flights from Sydney due to low demand. The service is planned to resume in June, he added.

Dery said schedule changes are on their website which is updated daily.

Passengers disembark from a WestJet Encore plane at the JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport Thursday. There are no flights at all from any airlines at the airport Friday. CONTRIBUTED
Passengers disembark from a WestJet Encore plane at the JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport Thursday. There are no flights at all from any airlines at the airport Friday. CONTRIBUTED

In a press release, West Jet officials say as well as temporarily suspending trans-border and international flying, they have reduced their overall domestic network in response to the 

COVID-19 crises and have taken measures on their flights including reducing the sale of seats for safe distancing.

“A small regional airport our size faces financial struggles on a good year, just trying to maintain our capital-intensive infrastructure,” said MacKinnon. “Airports have tremendous fixed costs and operate under regulatory requirements that do not get reduced in sync with all of the airline route reductions and falling passenger traffic levels happening now, the likes of which we have never seen before.”

MacKinnon said there is no government relief plan in sight yet for small airports like the Sydney airport. Recently, Transport Minister Marc Garneau and the Government of Canada agreed to a 10-month waiver of airport rent paid by 21 privately operated National Airports System airports.

“Unfortunately this is not one of those NAS airports,” he said. “Our airport is 100 per cent operated by a not-for-profit society, the Sydney airport was divested from the federal government over 20 years ago.”

MacKinnon said they are working with the Canadian Airports Association and the Atlantic Canada Airports Association to lobby for financial help. He said the latest projections are that Atlantic Canada Airports will suffer more than $118 million in operating losses from the impact of COVID-19. 

However, MacKinnon said they are determined to see their airport through this challenging time, even the most optimistic projections are quite dire as air travel is not expected to recover quickly at all.

Right now people are being asked to avoid non-essential travel. MacKinnon said they are looking at devastating financial impact projections. Their ability to weather this crisis and come back on the other side and to be able to do the things needed for the airport to be viable will require not only help from government, but Cape Breton community support of the airport will also be crucial. 

“The big thing is coming out the other side is how absolutely crucial it will be for the community to support the airport once it’s safe and people are able to travel again,” he said. “If you have any passion and pride for your community, instead of driving to Halifax get on an airplane. Things will get better eventually, we know they will if people support our airport.”

MacKinnon said Cape Breton Island needs this airport to survive. Cape Breton University, businesses, mobile workers, and the tourism industry all depend on it. 

“It’s essential for medevac and other emergency flights and for connecting our Cape Breton economy to the world.”

In the meantime, MacKinnon said the impact has also reached airport staff, includes reduction of hours for security and cleaners. The car rental agencies and restaurant have closed.

MacKinnon said all of the staff at the airport, their partners and own people, have worked extremely hard during these trying times and under rapidly changing conditions.

“They all deserve a huge thank you from the community,” he said. “Like front line staff at other essential businesses, the staff here at the airport have been on the front line keeping our airport open, so that hundreds of people were able to safely come home to Cape Breton during these challenging times.”

All of the information on the changing passenger check-in measures is detailed on the airport’s website http://sydneyairport.ca/. 

As of March 30, Transport Canada has applied measures for all domestic flights similar to the international and cross-border requirements. These measures include an operator must conduct, at the boarding gate, a health check of every passenger before the passenger boards an aircraft for a flight.

A passenger who is prohibited from boarding an aircraft is not permitted to board another aircraft for the purpose of being transported for a period of 14 days after the prohibition, unless they provide a medical certificate certifying that any symptoms that they are exhibiting are not related to COVID-19.

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