What can be done to maintain smaller regional airports?

Richard Cannings is MP for the South Okanagan-West Kootenay riding.

The airline industry has been hit hard by COVID-19 as travel restrictions put a stop to flight plans.

Air Canada alone has cancelled thousands of flights, pulled out of eight regional airports and laid off 20,000 people — half of its workforce.

Air travel is essential in such a large country as Canada, and it is nowhere more important than in the B.C. Interior. And, while travel restrictions are an essential tool in the fight against this pandemic, we have to plan for the future to make sure air options are available when people need to travel long distances quickly and safely.

It’s been the cutbacks regional routes to smaller airports such as Castlegar, Trail and Penticton that have had the biggest negative impact across Canada.

These cuts have made travel very difficult for local passengers trying to do business or visit family across the country.

Air Canada has pulled out of Castlegar altogether and has greatly reduced flights into Penticton.

WestJet has cut back service to Penticton as has Pacific Coastal in Trail.

Passengers have not only been affected by the reduction in flight options, they’ve been left high and dry by airlines that cancelled flights, often with little or no warning.

The airlines have then refused to provide refunds to these passengers, instead giving them a voucher for future travel that may be difficult or impossible to use after whole routes have vanished.

Travel agents haven’t been fully refunded for cancelled bookings.

As passenger numbers have plummeted, other services are directly impacted in a cascading series of impacts. Nav Canada, the agency that runs traffic control towers across the country has seen its funding cut drastically and is now studying whether to close towers at certain airports.

Low passenger numbers directly affect the viability of small airports.

The airport at Castlegar is owned and operated by the City of Castlegar, and 80 percent of its funding comes from passenger fees paid by airlines.

When Air Canada pulled out of Castlegar (and shows no sign of returning any time soon) that source of funding vanished.

Castlegar managed to convince Coastal Mountain Air to begin service to that airport, but it is unclear how long that arrangement will be viable.

Airline travel in the BC Interior has always been challenging.

Castlegar has invested a lot of money and time over the past few years in developing solutions to its problem of air travel reliability in winter. They are close to a solution for that issue, but now all that investment is at risk if Nav Canada closes the tower there and if Air Canada doesn’t restore full service.

Until the spectre of the COVID-19 epidemic has been eliminated, the number of people wanting to or able to travel will remain low.

Even after a vaccine is available it might take months or years for public confidence to return.

So, what can be done to maintain these airline and airport services?

I have been talking to passengers, airline executives, airline associations, airport associations, airline pilots, travel agents, the executives of Nav Canada and of course local leaders about these issues.

It is clear that significant government sectoral support is needed to help all aspects of the air travel industry. This has been done in other countries around the world.

But there must be strings attached to that support.

As I’ve said in the House of Commons and made clear during my meeting with Minister Garneau, any government funding for airlines must be contingent on passengers receiving full refunds for flights cancelled by the airlines.

And we must ensure that funding goes to reviving lost service, not to shareholders and airline executive pay.

Richard Cannings, MP South Okanagan-West Kootenay.