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ANDY WALKER: A major setback for air travel

WestJet is eliminating flights in Atlantic Canada across the board by almost 80 per cent starting next month. SaltWire File
WestJet is eliminating flights in Atlantic Canada across the board by almost 80 per cent starting next month. SaltWire File

While it was certainly came as no surprise, the decision by WestJet to significantly reduce its service to Charlottetown has set air travel back at least two decades in Canada's smallest province.

What is happening is by no means unique to Charlottetown. The COVID-19 pandemic has made people understandably nervous about getting on a plane. While the Atlantic bubble has definitely played a role in keeping cases in this region to a minimum, the requirement that a visitor from outside the region must self-isolate for 14 days has been a deterrent to visitors from the rest of the country.

It is also unfair to blame WestJet. They can't be expected to keep flying nearly empty planes into Charlottetown — that simply doesn't make economic sense.

That means there is now just one daily flight in and out of the province's only commercial airport — a situation that likely won't change significantly until COVID-19 is in our collective rear view mirror. Since the airport authority took over operation of the airport from the federal government in 1999, it has undergone a period of rapid growth. Chief executive officer Doug Newson and his staff have done an absolutely superb job attracting airlines and flights to the facility

Last year, 383,183 travelers used the airport — an increase of 3.4 per cent over 2018 and both WestJet and Air Canada expanded the number of flights. Before the arrival of COVID-19, this had the makings of another record year with direct flights from Hamilton and Calgary expected to be added to the mix.

When the pandemic does recede, Newson and his staff will essentially be back to square one. They have a proven success record with the airlines but they will be operating in a much different climate. Where there will likely be pent up demand for travel especially outside the bubble, there will also be some lingering fears that won't evaporate overnight.

The airlines are all now in a precarious financial position and will want to concentrate on their most profitable routes. While airports like Pearson International in Toronto and, to a lesser extent, Stanfield International in Halifax, have also experienced significant losses in terms of passengers, they are major travel hubs and that essentially assures their recovery.

Charlottetown Airport doesn't fall into that category. Its success pre-COVID largely depended on the airport officials convincing the airlines demand for flights was there and Islanders making those predictions come true. No doubt airport officials will be reminding the airlines of those past successes.

Another challenge, as if one is needed, is the fact a severe economic downturn is likely both provincially and nationally as governments struggle to pay off the bills resulting from their massive intervention into the economy. Layoffs and a trends towards more people working from home will likely result in less business travel.

The success the airport has achieved over the past two decades has played a major part in the economic success story that was P.E.I. before the arrival of the pandemic. Hopefully a return to those good times lies just down the road.

Andy Walker is a former reporter for the Journal Pioneer and is now a freelance writer who lives in Cornwall.

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