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Opinion

MORE than any other time in modern aviation history, airports have shown their value during this pandemic.

While most airline passengers with the discretion to choose have elected to stay home, airports have remained open to support essential workers who have had to fly to do their jobs and keep Canadians safe and healthy. Forest fires were fought. Nursing stations still required their staff to support remote communities. Flood evacuees were flown to higher ground. Virtually every airport supports air ambulance emergencies on a daily basis. Food travels regularly by air across the country and around the world.

While the aviation community, including airports serving Manitoba and northern Ontario, were relieved that the federal government focused on tourism, travel and regional airline routes for action in last month’s speech from the throne, we are concerned that airports were not mentioned. Restoring air service can be complex. In developing support for regional air routes, the federal government must work with both airlines and the airports they serve to ensure community connectivity is working.

Airports are more than shelters where people wait to board planes: they are local assets, providing essential services that keep their communities safe, healthy and provisioned. This is true everywhere in Canada, but it is felt most acutely in regions such as ours, where a network of large, medium and small airports provide both connectivity and a literal lifeline to hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

It is essential that Canadians have equitable access to reliable and affordable regional air services. But it is equally important to have access to medical and law enforcement personnel, food and supplies, air ambulance, forest fire suppression and so forth. These life-saving services are possible because of the united efforts of all of our airports in this region, from Winnipeg and Thunder Bay to the most remote airports in our network, even though these services are essentially government functions that our locally managed airports are facilitating.

Unfortunately, the revenue generated to support these activities vanished with scheduled passenger traffic. Until the onset of COVID-19, Canadian airports generated their revenues almost entirely from user fees that were heavily dependent on passengers. This revenue paid for airport operations, including essential services as well as capital and safety enhancements to terminals and runways.

Federal support of regional air routes must be developed as part of a package that addresses not just the financial losses of regional carriers, but also the losses at the regional airports through which they operate.

The situation is even worse for the many municipally owned airports in our region, as they are ineligible for the general COVID-19 wage-or loan-support programs. At the time airports were transferred, Transport Canada had encouraged use of the municipal-owned governance model. Today, despite the fact that they are essential to the economic and social well-being of their communities and residents, they are left without the financial support available to other airports.

Moreover, it is not only very small communities that are challenged. Regional connectivity is a complex issue. Community connectivity must be protected.

The government can do more to help. At a minimum, it can extend multi-year rent relief for the country’s eight busiest airports, including Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, and eliminate rent permanently for the 14 smaller airports such as Thunder Bay International Airport.

The Canadian Airports Council also recommends interest-free loans or direct operational support, particularly for the majority of airports that pay little or no rent. For the smallest members of our airport community, those that see 525,000 passengers or fewer annually, the federal government should increase its existing Airport Capital Assistance Fund to $95 million annually.

We appreciate the efforts of government to keep Canadians healthy and safe, and that it recognizes that the air travel sector is among the hardest hit in our economy. But we have reached the end of what we can do on our own. We have eliminated jobs, cancelled improvement projects and raised our fees, but with travel down by 90 per cent with no change in sight, that won’t be enough.

The immediate future remains difficult, but we are committed to serving our communities and travellers to the best of our ability to keep them safe, healthy and connected.

But we need the government of Canada to play an active role in ensuring the long-term viability and competitiveness of our sector.

Raquel Lincoln is executive director of the Manitoba Aviation Council, Aaron Lougheed is executive director of the Airport Management Council of Ontario and Daniel-Robert Gooch is president of the Canadian Airports Council.