Air Canada axes 7 N.L. routes, drops service to Labrador West

In an effort to cut costs, Air Canada has suspended seven of its routes in Newfoundland and Labrador indefinitely, and has pulled out of Wabush Airport entirely.

In a statement Tuesday, the carrier — which has been struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic — announced it will no longer fly between St. John's and Gander, St. John's and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and St. John's and Deer Lake. 

Happy Valley-Goose Bay will also no longer have flights to and from Gander or Deer Lake.

Its decision to pull out of Wabush affects routes between that town and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, as well as Sept-Iles, Que.

Wabush Mayor Ron Barron said the move is disappointing, and comes following what he called decades of a tumultous relationship with the airline.

"These guys are burning bridges here and they are burning them again today," Barron said.

Jacob Barker/CBC

The cuts are part of a Canada-wide contraction, with Air Canada dropping seven other routes in Atlantic Canada, as well as 12 in central Canada and four servicing Saskatchewan.

The release said the changes were due to "continuing weak demand for both business and leisure travel," due to a mix of travel restrictions and border closures. The airline stated any industry recovery will take three to four years.

"Other changes to its network and schedule, as well as further service suspensions, will be considered over the coming weeks," said the release.

The Wabush mayor says he hopes it's not part of a bid for a federal bailout.

"I hope this is not a ploy by Air Canada now … to get government on side to give them our tax dollars again to bail them out. I personally am not a fan of Air Canada. Have never been. They offered a second-grade service here," Barron said. "These guys, if you're going to offer a service, provide a service. Not this crap they've been providing in the past.

"I'd be against them ever coming back here if that's the case."

Barron said he spoke with PAL Airlines on Tuesday, and said the company told him it would be stepping in to pick up the slack across Atlantic Canada.

"They see this an opportunity for them to make their business better," Barron said.

'A substantial blow'

Airports across Newfoundland and Labrador have detailed their struggles to survive the industry downturn in recent weeks. An expansion project at St. John's International Airport is on hold as it lost 95 per cent of its traffic in April alone, while the CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority Reg Wright says his airport is losing $14,000 a day.

While Wright hasn't totalled the financial damage of losing the two Air Canada routes, he estimated those flights account for 20 per cent of the airport's revenue.

"It's certainly a substantial blow to us. I won't say it's entirely unforeseen, but it certainly is a sign of the times," he told CBC News. 

"The aviation travel industry seems to continue to find new bottoms these days."

Wright said the so-called Atlantic bubble, set to come into effect on Friday, offers hope to his troubled industry, but it clearly fell short of what Air Canada needed.

"I was hoping that was enough for the airlines to make a decision that they'd try to salvage the summer, but it may have been a little late to salvage these routes," he said.

Air Canada reported a net loss of $1.05 billion in the first quarter of 2020 alone, said the release. It has also downsized its staff by about 20,000 and trimmed 79 planes.

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