Air Canada is suspending all flights out of the Saint John Airport and all Toronto flights out of the Fredericton International Airport indefinitely, starting Jan. 11, because of the second wave of the pandemic.
The airline is also suspending all operations at the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport until further notice and temporarily suspending Deer Lake-Halifax, Charlottetown-Toronto and Halifax-Ottawa service.
"The second wave of COVID-19 infections is piling added pressure on a sector on the verge of collapse," the Atlantic Canada Airports Association said in a statement on Tuesday.
"This is bigger than a blow to our region; we could be looking at the end of some our small regional airports if solutions are not found."
At the Saint John Airport, Air Canada flights are currently the only flights, with one arrival and one departure from Montreal daily.
The airport will remain open for medical emergencies, the Coast Guard and corporate clients, said Derrick Stanford, president and CEO of the Saint John Airport and president of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association.
The Fredericton airport has been advised it will temporarily lose its three-times-a-week service to Toronto, but Air Canada will continue to offer daily flights to Montreal, said spokesperson Kate O'Rourke.
"Service has been whittled down to an unsustainable level for our airports," Stanford said. "Our industry cannot survive and operate in these conditions, and we are seeing the worst-case scenario playing out here today.
"This will have a huge impact on our region's economy, on the ability of families to reconnect, on the movement of essential workers, and on airport employees and businesses."
Air Canada regrets impact
Air Canada said it did not take the decisions lightly.
"We regret the impact on our customers and community partners, but it is increasingly difficult to continue to operate in this challenging environment, without specific financial support from government, with whom we continue to wait for negotiations to start," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Passenger volumes are still less than eight per cent of normal "with no horizon for recovery," it said.
Saint John came close to losing its only Air Canada flight at the end of November, with bookings looking "quite grim," but managed to hold onto it through the holidays, said Stanford.
Fourteen-day self-isolation requirements, the lack of a rapid COVID-19 testing program at airports, and the Canada-U.S. border being closed are "just stunting demand like crazy," he said.
"We can't expect our business partner, Air Canada, to keep flying planes empty into Saint John."
Stanford hopes that the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will help improve consumer confidence to "get people … back to travelling the way they used to travel" and that Air Canada will resume its Saint John service by April.
He also has meetings this week with the federal government to learn more about the funding programs for airports announced Nov. 30.
"We're hopeful that we'll be able to take advantage of them, so that would be a welcome relief for us who've already depleted a lot of our savings trying to ride out the pandemic," he said.
The funding includes $229 million in rent relief to airport authorities that pay rent to the federal government and $186 million to help small and regional airports through the "Airport Capital Assistance Program."
Mayor vows 'all of our energy'
Saint John Mayor Don Darling said the airport is a key economic driver in the area, with an economic impact of more than $90 million annually and supporting 650 jobs.
It also plays a vital role in the growth for southern New Brunswick, in the movement of goods and the movement of people for both business and tourism.
"So that's where we have to put all of our energy and our focus now," he said.
Although many industries have been hard-hit by the pandemic, the airline industry has been "decimated," said Darling.
Saint John council will urge the federal government to provide funding to airlines so they can continue to provide regional air service to Atlantic Canada, and funding for the Saint John Airport to ensure it remains open, he said.
Council also plans to encourage the provincial government to investigate and pilot initiatives, such as rapid COVID-19 testing, with a goal of reducing the amount of time that travellers are required to self-isolate, Darling said.
The Fredericton airport continues to work with governments and airlines to find ways to safely restart travel while the vaccine is rolled out, O'Rourke said.
"This has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone in the air industry, including airlines and airports across Canada, the companies that supply us, and the businesses that rely on air access," she said in an emailed statement.
"Air access is critical for the movement of essential travellers now, and the recovery of our province's economy when the pandemic ends."
This is the third major round of cuts to air service in the Atlantic region in the last six months.
In October, WestJet announced it was suspending 80 per cent of its capacity. In June Air Canada indefinitely suspended 11 routes and closed stations in Bathurst and Wabush, N.L.