Airports and airlines across the world were hit by unprecedented turbulence when COVID-19 appeared on the radar.
Prior to COVID, Sault Ste. Marie’s airport had some lofty plans in the works.
In March, the Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corp. announced it was planning a $5-million multi-stage upgrade of airport amenities, including a redesigned parking lot, the construction of a new hotel, and possibly a new flight-training business.
Before any of those ideas could come to fruition, water and sewer upgrades would be needed. A year ago, FedNor announced $1.8 million in funds aimed at infrastructure improvements.
“We’re currently at capacity and we’re looking to expand,” Terry Boss, president-CEO at the airport development corporation, told Northern Ontario Business in March. “We’ll be ready to roll.”
That was then.
“Obviously, this year there will not be any construction taking place,” said Bos. “The earliest will be 2021. We need expansion to our water and sewage for sure.”
Once it’s possible, Bos said, the much needed infrastructure expansions will go ahead.
The status of other ideas, such as a new hotel, is currently up in the air.
The airport monitors trends in the air travel industry and makes its plans accordingly. Much of this depends on what the various airlines are doing.
As of Aug. 10, Air Canada will be offering two flights daily for the month of August.
Air Canada had originally suspended all flights between the Sault and Toronto on April 2 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bearskin Airlines is offering scheduled and chartered flights, operating up to four flights daily, Sunday to Friday, between the Sault and Sudbury and/or Thunder Bay, throughout the month of August.
Porter suspended flights on March 21 and plans to resume service on Aug. 31.
All Sunwing flights have been cancelled until Aug. 31.
Bos expects that July’s numbers will see a bit of an uptick compared to June's, but he’s cautious about predicting if the trend will continue for August.
Winter travel to warm destinations likely won’t provide a big boost this year, he said. Most people who go to destinations such as Cuba are working people looking for a week off. Self-quarantining rules add to the time required off work when travellers come home.
Prior to COVID, about 400 people worked at the airport. This includes operations such as JD Aero, Sault College, the restaurant and car rentals. Bos said that number is now under 200.
Bos said closing the airport is not an option.
There are cargo flights and numerous daily medevac flights, averaging about three or five a day.
“How do you maintain operations at the lowest cost possible?” said Bos, when talking about the current challenges.
The last major jolt to the industry was the response to the 9-11 terror attacks.
In 9-11’s aftermath, airports revamped infrastructure with screening machines and security procedures.
The disruption of COVID-19 has hit the airport much harder.
“The downturn is way larger than anything we had in relation to 9-11,” said Bos.
“I’m not sure where the industry will go or where the technology is now, but I’m sure it will adapt.”
Temperature screening machines and disinfection machines may become part of future travel. Currently, masks and distancing practices as well as enhanced cleaning are in place and these will likely become permanent.
Bos pointed out that air travel remains safe with masking and better air ventilation.
The Sault Ste. Marie Airport was well positioned financially to weather the storm of COVID-19.
“We were very conservative in the way we operated the airport. We were good enough to start building up a reserve fund,” said Bos.
Unfortunately, the reserve fund was meant for capital projects, not basic survival.
Bos is hopeful the government comes through with some sort of COVID support program for airports much along the lines of what the United States did with its CARES Act stimulus funding.
“There’s not a cash-flow issue, there’s a no-cash issue,” said Bos.