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Sydney airport flying into more hard times, flights reduced to two per week

The lounge, security area and waiting areas at the JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport were empty on Tuesday. Mike MacKinnon, CEO, said passenger traffic is off by more than 98 per cent due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the public is being asked to avoid non-essential travel at this time. CONTRIBUTED/SYDNEY AIRPORT AUTHOIRTY
The lounge, security area and waiting areas at the JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport were empty on Tuesday. Mike MacKinnon, CEO, said passenger traffic is off by more than 98 per cent due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the public is being asked to avoid non-essential travel at this time. CONTRIBUTED/SYDNEY AIRPORT AUTHORITY
SYDNEY, N.S. —

The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to create a totally different crisis at the JA Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport.

Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the Sydney Airport, said passenger traffic is off by more than 98 per cent.

“It has been like this since mid-March and it will be virtually impossible to recover our losses given the fixed costs and capital-intensive assets we are required to manage as an essential service for the community,” he said.

WestJet, the only airline currently flying out of the airport, announced as of Monday their Sydney to Halifax flights have been reduced to only two a week. Spokesperson Morgan Bell said service is on WestJet Encore each Monday and Friday. 

Mike MacKinnon
Mike MacKinnon

“WestJet has made additional changes to its domestic flight schedule, removing approximately 4,000 weekly flights or 600 daily flights from May 5 through June 4, 2020,” Bell said in an email response to questions. “These changes were required to address significantly reduced guest demand during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Bell said while some city pairings have been temporarily removed, their commitment is to continue to serve the 38 Canadian airports to which they currently operate. 

“The overall demand for travel remains fluid during this ongoing pandemic and we continue to evaluate further changes.”

In early April, Air Canada announced laying off more than 16,000 employees and as a result, had ceased all remaining operations — Sydney to Halifax flights — until May 31. 

The news came in an addition to an earlier announcement of the Sydney to Toronto service suspended until April 30,  then extended until the end of May.

At the time, the airport was left with just a single WestJet Encore daily flight to Halifax, which soon after was reduced to three flights a week.

On Tuesday, Air Canada has confirmed they will be resuming flights at the Sydney Airport as of June 22. 

“The June schedule will be coming out this week,” said Pascale Dery, a company spokesperson, in an email reply to questions. 

MacKinnon said although WestJet will only be operating twice a week through to early June, they don’t know what the rest of the schedule looks like yet.

In the meantime, MacKinnon received Air Canada’s schedule Tuesday afternoon. It includes the Sydney to Toronto service resuming June 22 Monday to Friday with early morning departure and late evening returns. 

“The Montreal seasonal flight which we were so looking forward to having back for its second season, will not operate at all this year.”

Air Canada's service to Halifax will remain suspended until at least July 1.

The summer schedule is going to see a major decline in seat capacity versus what they planned for this year, MacKinnon added. 

"Right now it looks like we will see anywhere from a 50 per cent to 80 per cent drop in the number of total weekly seats offered out of Sydney this summer, which is obviously going to be quite challenging for us." 

MacKinnon said undoubtedly the challenge of scheduling is that the airlines have no control over when the government will lift restrictions on travel and it is hard for them to plan with that uncertainty. As well, the uncertainty over travel restrictions impacts advance passenger bookings, which are a major part of the equation being analyzed by the airlines, as they try to navigate through the pandemic.

Currently, MacKinnon said the airport also has medical emergency and transfer flights, military flights and mail/cargo flights that are still using the airport to move essential goods and provide essential support to the community, but those activities will not sustain the airport long term. 

In the meantime, he said they have significantly cut their budgets, deferred and canceled capital projects but even with those efforts are still not able to significantly offset all of the operating losses. 

“We are doing everything we can to preserve as many jobs as we can and still remain safe and compliant, but it won’t be possible to do this long term without assistance.”

MacKinnon said the federal government has been listening to their concerns. They are members of the Atlantic Canada Airport Association and the Canadian Airports Council and have presented the government with startling data showing the crippling impact of this issue for all of Canada’s airports.

“We remain hopeful that government support will be forthcoming in some form so that we can be here for the long road to recovery that lies ahead.”

MacKinnon said recovery of air service will be especially challenging for small regional airports like the Sydney airport, airlines will need to see demand from the community and advance bookings need to be strong. 

“So when you feel it is safe and you are comfortable to plan to fly, please make your booking out of Sydney. I cannot stress how important that will be for the future viability of the airport,” he said. “Community support will be more critical than ever to ensure we maintain our existing air services. I am confident that the Cape Breton community will see the need to support their local airport as we come out of this crisis.”

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