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Traffic at YYJ picking up, but still far from pre-pandemic levels

Air travel is picking up at Victoria International Airport.
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Passengers arrive at Victoria International Airport in July. The number of passengers in August is expected to exceed 40,000 — showing steady increases since June and July — but still down nearly 65% from the first eight months of the previous year. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Air travel is picking up at Victoria International Airport.

But passenger numbers and aircraft traffic are still far from pre-pandemic levels and the terminal at YYJ remains a shadow of its usual self with fewer arrivals and departures, reduced food and beverage services and acres of open parking.

Victoria Airport Authority spokesman Rod Hunchak said Monday the number of passengers this month is expected to exceed 40,000 — showing steady increases since June and July — but still down nearly 65% from the first eight months of the previous year.

Over the first seven months of this year, 404,204 passengers have streamed in and out of the terminal, well below the 1.12 million passengers achieved last year at the same time. During 2019, the airport accommodated 1.924 million passengers and was listed as Canada’s 11th busiest. Kelowna nudged Victoria out of the top 10 with just over two million passengers. During April and May, passenger volume at YYJ tumbled by more than 95% to 4,162 and 6,635, respectively.

In June, the passenger count increased to 13,437 and in July that nearly tripled to 34,055 — still an 82% decline when compared with July a year ago.

International and transborder flights completely disappeared from YYJ’s radar in April and May after more than 11,500 passenger arrivals and departures in March.

From January to July this year, aircraft movements through the control tower — which includes commercial andlocal smaller aircraft — are down by 35% and air cargo volume has slipped 30%, according to airport authority statistics.

Apart from airline services, only the Tim Hortons and airport gift shop are open.

A plan by Victoria Distillers to open a retail outlet in the departures lounge is still being mulled over. The Sidney-based company has plans to promote its Empress Gin brand in a retail setting with tastings and a small operation where gin is dispensed, bottled and labelled on site so customers can take it with them when they fly out.

Transportation has also been reduced to and from the airport.

Wilson’s Transportation suspended its YYJ Airport Shuttle on March 20 and has not restarted the service. Yellow Cab, which serves the airport, did not immediately return calls asking about service cutbacks.

The seasonal flight schedule for sun destinations is unknown at this point, said Hunchak. YYJ is a popular departure point to holiday spots in Mexico and the southern U.S., “but we haven’t seen a schedule yet [from the airlines],” he said.

“The landscape changes month to month, and we just don’t know right now.”

YYJ currently accommodates daily Air Canada, WestJet and Pacific Coastal Airlines flights to Vancouver, Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto.

Ten flights departed Victoria on Monday and 14 were scheduled today over a 12-hour period.

The launch of Flair Airlines at YYJ started Monday, and is expected to provide a small boost for the airport. Flights to Vancouver are $49 one way.

Flair said there are options for add-on costs and connections to several other Canadian airports, including the resource centres of Prince George and Fort McMurray, Alta., as well as Saskatoon and Regina — all new destinations also announced by Flair.

The Edmonton-based airline, which is using four Boeing 737-800 jets, also flies to Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Kelowna.

Victoria passengers heading to Fort McMurray, for example, would pay $49 to get to Vancouver, and then another $79 for the leg to Fort McMurray.

Flair spokeswoman Jamina Kotak said regular flights will leave Victoria on Fridays and Mondays.

She did not comment on the passenger load of the initial flight out of Victoria, which departed at 1 p.m. on Monday.

“Passenger demand is building as each day passes, and we believe with more awareness in the market regarding our low fares and great service that demand will only continue to grow,” Kotak said in an emailed statement.

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau has laid out strict protocols for flights, including travel restrictions, mandatory use of face masks for passengers and crew; mandatory health checks by air carriers prior to passenger boarding; temperature screening at the busiest Canadian airports and at points of origin for all incoming flights to Canada; restricted services and passenger movement during flights; and enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols.

In airports, the measures include enhanced air conditioning and filtration systems; frequent cleaning of high-touch areas; new touchless technologies to scan boarding passes; and physical distancing measures.

dkloster@timescolonist.com