Airport CEOs say it could be five years before travel gets back to 2019 levels

Posted on May 05, 2020 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

Atlantic Canada’s airports are open, but their business is grounded.

Joyce Carter, CEO of Halifax International Airport Authority, says that a typical May travel season will bring an average of 11,000 passengers a day through her airport. This May’s traffic is down by 98 per cent—to just 200 a day—for Atlantic Canada’s largest and busiest airport.

It’s a similar situation at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland. Reg Wright, the airport authority’s CEO as well as the president of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, says he’s seeing only 2.5 per cent of the typical traffic he’d normally see this time of the year.

Empty terminals are not the only difference you’ll see at airports these days.

“The travel industry is going to be one of the last to recover… Best-case scenario, we don’t expect to recover to 2019 travel volumes before 2024.”

Joyce Carter
CEO, Halifax International Airport Authority

In addition to the standard Covid-19 physical distancing protocols, face masks are now mandatory. “Thoughout the airport and pre-boarding, passengers are required to wear a mask. And you may be expected to wear a facial covering like a mask, shawl or scarf during the flight,” says Carter.

Carter anticipates seeing more “technological solutions” in the future. Citing the need to decrease physical interaction between passengers and staff, she anticipates facial recognition software and health assessment tools will become standard airport screening practice.

“Social distancing, advanced protocols, deep cleaning — we’re braced for all of that,” she says. “This pandemic will not be our last.”

Wright says that if 9/11 taught us anything, it was how to quickly develop and implement a massive security infrastructure. “Our industry is braced for the same thing in terms of public health screening.”

Those changes are already coming into effect. On May 4, Air Canada introduced a CleanCare+ program that includes mandatory pre-flight customer temperature checks, increased space in Economy Class, personal care kits with disinfectant and electrostatic cabin spraying.

While necessary to protect the traveling public and restore consumer confidence, the increased safety precautions are also expensive. But just as fuel surcharges, airport improvements and security fees have been passed on to consumers, Carter predicts the same will happen with the investments required for advanced public health protection protocols.

“There is no way for airlines to fly economically and keep passengers six feet apart on the flight. No way to do it.”

Reg Wright
CEO, Gander International Airport Authority
President, Atlantic Canada Airports Association

After all, the airports can’t afford to absorb those costs—they get the bulk of their operating money from the travelling public through fees and money spent at airport retailers. No passengers means no revenue.

“It’s hard to see a scenario where the cost to travel does not go up,” says Carter.

Both Carter and Wright agree the “new normal” isn’t going to reverse direction any time soon.

In fact, on April 29, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador instituted a travel ban. Effective May 4, exempting transient workers and special pre-approved circumstances, only official residents are permitted to enter the province. There is no end date to the travel ban.

“The travel industry is going to be one of the last to recover,” predicts Carter. Best case scenario? “We don’t expect to recover to 2019 travel volumes before 2024.” That’s five years from now.

“Are people ever going to congregate in groups again? Will the convention business return in a meaningful way? Will anyone set foot on a cruise ship again?” These are just some of the questions that Wright says will affect demand for air travel down the road.

Failing to take flight, however, will ground more than regional airports. “If we can’t fly, it will paralyze the world’s economy,” says Wright.

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