Question Period: COVID-19 Pandemic—Regional Airports

By: The Hon. Jane Cordy

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Hon. Jane Cordy: First, Senator Gold, congratulations to the government on getting the COVID-19 vaccine to Canadians ahead of schedule. That doesn’t always happen with government, and I’m pleased that today, Nova Scotia received our first allotment of the vaccine. My question follows up along the lines of Senator Duncan’s, and it is related to the airline industry.

As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on, we are seeing the devastating effect it is having on Canada’s airline industry. Between April and August, airports in Atlantic Canada have reported a 92% decrease in passengers compared to over a year ago, with losses expected to be in the area of $140 million this year, and industry experts are not expecting service to return to regular passenger levels until 2024, which is a long way off.

We are also seeing airlines reducing or altogether stopping services to smaller, regional airports. Last Tuesday, Air Canada announced it will stop their remaining flights to Sydney, Cape Breton by January 11, 2021. WestJet stopped its service to Cape Breton on November 2. Sydney Airport is now an airport without any commercial air service, and we all know that is essential to small regions like Cape Breton. In the new year, Cape Breton will lose a service that is vital to business, to those who commute across the country for work, to Cape Breton University and to the tourism industry.

Senator Gold, in the government’s Speech from the Throne and its economic update, the government pledged its support for regional air routes. Does the government have a plan to support regional airline routes, like those to Cape Breton, to ensure some of our smaller regions are not economically cut off from the rest of Canada by having no commercial air service?

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate): Senator, thank you for your question and, again, for raising this important consideration.

The government is disappointed in Air Canada’s decision to cancel more regional routes, and it recognizes that the air sector has been hard hit by this pandemic as you and previous questioners underlined. Over the next few years, the government is committed to investing more than $1.1 billion to support key players, such as airport authorities and regional airlines. It acknowledges that the major airlines also need specific support, and that’s why it is committed to developing a package of assistance for the Canadian airline industry. However, it’s important to understand that before the government spends taxpayer money on airlines, it will ensure that regional communities maintain air connections to the rest of Canada and that Canadians get the refunds that they deserve.

Senator Cordy: Thank you for that, Senator Gold.

As you know, time is crucial for those living in smaller regions in Atlantic Canada and in fact all of Canada, the smaller regions particularly. Lack of commercial air service will cause harm to all communities and, as I said earlier, particularly to the smaller ones. It’s essential to their economic well-being, and certainly, it’s essential to their economic recovery.

I’m wondering if the government is working with the airlines and the airports on solutions because the situation is becoming dire for many regions, and particularly for the smaller regions, which depend so much on air service.

Senator Gold: Thank you, senator. I don’t have the details of the ongoing discussions between stakeholders and the government, so I won’t venture an answer to your specific question, but any solution to a problem that affects so many players and so many parts of the country surely must involve a dialogue with and the engagement of all the major players. I feel comfortable in assuming that is the case.

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