Federal government unlocks $740 million in airport relief

OTTAWA — The federal government is launching a basket of programs to bolster airports with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding first announced back in November, but the sector says more drastic steps are needed.

Ottawa has opened the door to $740 million in capital investments for airports over the next six years, laying out detailed criteria for the hard-hit facilities to apply for aid.

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About $490 million of that windfall is bound for large airports to put toward critical infrastructure such as runway repairs and transit stations.

Most of the rest is en route to smaller airports, whose definition has been loosened temporarily to allow eight more sites to apply, from Prince George, B.C., to Gander, Nfld.

The government previously announced $206 million over two years to support regional air transportation, and $229 million in additional rent relief to 21 airport authorities. Rent was waived for one to three years for smaller airports and deferred by a year for Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary.

The aviation industry has been among the hardest-hit sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic, with profits and passenger numbers plummeting amid travel restrictions and border shutdowns.

Airports get the bulk of their revenue from landing and terminal charges to carriers and parking and "airport improvement fees" for travellers, all of which have tanked since March 2020. High fixed costs such as tarmac maintenance, utilities and debt servicing make the situation tougher.

The number of passengers entering Canada in the week of April 12 to 18 dwindled to 33,800, a fraction of the more than 700,000 international travellers that touched down in the same period in 2019, according to figures from the Canada Border Services Agency.

Canadian Airports Council president Daniel-Robert Gooch said any federal support is welcome, but that even half a billion dollars for large airports falls short of the aid required.

"We know that the $500 million is probably going to be dwarfed by other projects," he said in an interview, citing the constant need for infrastructure upgrades.

In a statement from the council, which represents more than 100 airports, Gooch stressed the need for more federal engagement and a restart plan.

"It is good to see federal government commitments made in the fall economic statement being fulfilled, with funds flowing to airports soon. Unfortunately, the situation is worse than it was when these measures were announced five months ago," he said.

Last week, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said G7 countries are working toward a "common platform for recognizing the vaccinated status of travellers."

"There's discussion about what a vaccine certificate would look like, what are the thresholds, what are the testing regimes that need to stay in place," he added Tuesday at a virtual press conference.

Alghabra declined to offer a timeline, saying it hinges on public-health conditions.

The minister also said he and Transport Department officials "meet regularly with airports, either as a council, as an association group or as individual airports, because their input is important to me."

However, Gooch said airports have not been part of the discussion on vaccine certificationso far.

"That's something we've wanted to talk with the government about for quite some time," Gooch said.

"My organization has not yet had any direct discussions … about what the government’s looking at in terms of digital passports."

Last month, the federal budget laid out $82.5 million for COVID-19 testing at airports when travel picks up.

"We are still awaiting details on what that means, but we think we’ll get those details fairly soon," Gooch said.

Robert Kokonis, president of Toronto-based aviation consulting firm AirTrav Inc., said smaller airports have been hit particularly hard.

"This amount of funding will not be sufficient to get them where they need to be. Their balance sheets are in a massive state of disrepair," he said.

Mike McNaney, chief executive of the National Airlines Council of Canada, cited the United Kingdom as a model of how to roll out and follow a restart roadmap.

"Establishing the parameters for the safe restart of the sector, and clearly conveying a plan to the public, is essential if we are to continue to effectively support public health and Canada’s overall economic recovery in communities large and small across the country," he said in a statement.

Calgary Airport Authority spokesman Reid Fiest said in an email that "while capital funding is welcome and needed, the programs announced are not new and do not address the significant decline in revenue and passenger activity because of current COVID-19 travel restrictions and recommendations."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2021.

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