Airport CEO sees urgency in coordinating virus-related protocols

The chief executive of the Victoria Airport Authority is calling for national virus-related protocols co-ordinated with provinces, now that flight numbers are starting to increase and summer is approaching.

“That is something that needs to be addressed with a certain degree of urgency,” Geoff Dickson said Tuesday.

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Provinces have imposed different rules for travellers as they try to keep people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that can be confusing for the travelling public, said Dickson, who recommended more leadership at both the federal and provincial levels.

Whatever measures are put in place need to be science- and evidence-based, he said.

The airport authority, which runs Victoria International Airport, has seen passenger numbers plummet and revenues crash. It has been forced to put on hold about $18 million in planned capital projects for this year and next.

It’s estimated that total revenue will drop by 60 per cent this year, to $17 million from an earlier forecast of $40 million, Dickson said.

Passenger numbers in the first few months of the year were trending up compared with the same months in 2019, Dickson said. But that changed dramatically in mid-March.

“We went from 5,000 passengers per day to almost immediately 1,000,” he said. “By the time March was over, our traffic for the month was down 50 per cent year-over-year. When we got into April, we were carrying about 150 people a day. Our business was down 98 per cent.”

April saw 4,500 passengers for the entire month, fewer than normal numbers for a single day, he said. International passengers evaporated as borders closed.

Some airlines continue to fly in and out of Victoria. WestJet and Air Canada are linking passengers with Vancouver and Calgary. Most days through April and May saw eight to 10 flights, evenly split between arrivals and departures.

A total of 9,500 passengers were recorded in May.

Most travellers are either flying for work or connecting with family, Dickson said, and planes are flying at about 20 per cent occupancy.

Scheduled flights have doubled this month as business starts to pick up and as Pacific Coastal Airlines resumes service at the airport, linking Vancouver and Kelowa with Victoria.

Alaska Airlines has discontinued flights to and from Victoria, but that could change this month. The Canada-U.S. border is closed until at least June 21.

Victoria International Airport had seen passenger numbers climb year-after-year until 2019, when they dropped by six per cent to 1.9 million because of the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max planes, Dickson said.

The airport has signed up for the Canada emergency wage-subsidy program and has kept all of its 55 employees, with some working from home.

However, several hundred workers linked to services and shops at the airport or employed by airlines have been laid off.

The only restaurant in the pre-security area is Tim Hortons. The Harborwalk Shops is the only outlet open post-security and it sells coffee. Stores and the volunteer information service are closed and the airport shuttle is not running.

Short-term parking is free for now, and those collecting incoming passengers are asked to wait in their vehicles.

The airport’s operating budget was cut by 25 per cent in mid-March, Dickson said, and more than 60 per cent of the capital budget was also pared. “So the only capital programs that are being executed are the ones that are a continuation from the previous year and anything related to safety.”

All aspects of airport revenue have been affected, Dickson said, including income from airlines for using the facility, parking-lot revenue, and income from restaurants and retail operations.

The terminal expansion, which started two years ago, is continuing, as it is scheduled to be finished in July.

Projects on hold include a plan to fit out 10,000 square feet in the basement under the terminal for an integrated emergency operations centre, Dickson said, as well as plans to update and replace parking-lot technology and a re-engineering of Electra Boulevard.

The challenge for the airport is how to return to two million passenger per year, he said, adding the consensus in the industry is that it could take until 2023 and 2024 to return to similar levels.

Anyone travelling through the airport can go to online to find out the latest advice and requirements.

A beefed-up cleaning regime is in effect and the airport has altered seating and implemented physical-distancing protocols to improve health and safety.

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