Ensuring we don’t lose 20 years of air transportation advances

Just about everyone is apoplectic about what is happening with our airport sector in the province (and region).  We have to differentiate between a short term – Covid-19-driven response and the longer term impacts.  People are speculating that airports will close and that airlines post-Covid-19 will want to reduce the number of airports they fly into (i.e. consolidate air transportation into fewer airports).

I have been writing for years about how governments equate transportation infrastructure with roads.  The New Brunswick government spends hundreds of millions of tax dollars each year on roads but very little on every other area of transportation infrastructure (airports, rail, ports, etc.).  The former is considered a fundamental role of government and the latter somehow must be totally direct user-funded.

This always seemed strange to me.  The economic development of this province relies on a robust transportation system – not just highways and roads.  For the most part the rail system has gone the way of the dodo bird in this province (it is booming in many places).  It is amazing how quickly we forgot about the strategic value of the rail system.  

Luckily there was a different view of the air transportation system and in the past 20 years we have benefited from more flights, more destinations and better costs.  I still think we need a small commuter airport in Edmundston but beyond that things have gone reasonably well.  I know there is a nascent movement to look at consolidating airports in Sussex but I can’t see how you would ever get buy-in for that.  

Likely a better option would be going back to a ‘milk run’ whereby the plane starts in one city, drops down and picks up in a second and then off to Toronto, etc.  I know the airlines don’t like that option, however.

The bigger point is that government needs to a) ensure we don’t lose our airports in the short term, and b) the system swings back to ‘normal’ post-pandemic (with some thought for a small commuter airport in Edmundston, sorry for the preoccupation but in the long run making people drive 2+ hours to access flights is not good).

I know there are those of you who would like everyone to drive to a single airport somewhere even if it takes 2-3 hours to get there. You will argue that on average your total travel time will be shorter because that single airport would have more and more frequent routes (and lower costs).  Maybe, but you still have this lingering long term reality that cities/towns without an airport over the long run have much lower economic growth than those that do (based on my analysis almost 20 years ago).

So, for now don’t panic.  If WestJet only has 6 people on a flight how can you expect them to continue flying?

Let’s focus on my two principles: a) ensure we don’t lose our airports in the short term, and b) the system swings back to ‘normal’ post-pandemic.


3 thoughts on “Ensuring we don’t lose 20 years of air transportation advances

  1. I agree completely David. The last thing we should do is panic in the middle of this storm. We should at least stay the course until we are through this.

    The proponents of a consolidated airport apparently believe that New Brunswick would end up with one large airport. That is not true. In terms of Canada’s aviation system, we would end up with a mid sized airport approximately the same size as the airport in St John’s Newfoundland. St Johns Airport has flights to Toronto, Montreal Moncton, and Halifax as well as a few points within their province. Before the pandemic started, St Johns had no international or trans border flights. People from St Johns fly to a hub to connect to their many international destinations – just like us.

    Our airports are spokes to hubs and spokes to hubs they will be. And that system enables passengers from our community access to the world.

  2. Hi David, good article. I’d like to see the different airport authorities explore the idea of a single authority. Then this body can collaborate to compete as opposed to competing with each other. Something to consider.

  3. Interesting article, David. The reason why you’ve seen the province equate transportation infrastructure with roads, is that air, rail and ports are federal responsibilities under the constitution. So the jurisdictional issue means that provincial and municipal leaders tend to think of air infrastructure and air services, as “the feds’ problem.” What’s unfortunate about that — as you say in your blog — is that the economic development of a province, of course, relies on a robust transportation system, beyond just highways and roads. Just as a tenant in an apartment without running water would never say “that’s the landlord’s problem,” our leaders at all levels of government should be invested in what happens to their local infrastructure of federal jurisdiction.

    You’re right to focus on those two principles — our airports really do have acute immediate needs to avoid things like rate increases that would further depress demand or outright closure. There is a risk that many air service options will not return when Canadians are ready to travel again.

    Canada’s major air carriers, which also have seen no support beyond the wage subsidy, are not as large as they were before. They don’t have as many aircraft flying — so fewer small aircraft to serve smaller communities and fewer large aircraft and international routes to feed. Already the tremendous growth in air routes and competitive options we have seen over the past decade will take years to rebuild. Many communities that have lost air service will have a hard time getting it back. While other carriers may move in to fill the gaps, these services must be connected to national/international networks through codeshares and/or interline agreements or they are of limited value to a community.

    When Canadians are ready to travel again, it’s really not clear that the air service options and fares they have come to expect will still be there for them.

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