Atlantic airports think rapid testing could encourage people to travel by air again

·3 min read

Airports in Atlantic Canada want governments to look into new technology that could get people flying again.

Monette Pasher, the executive director of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, said the mandatory 14-day quarantine imposed on anyone entering the Atlantic bubble is affecting people's decision to fly.

Those who don't have two extra weeks on either end of a trip, are simply choosing to stay home — and that has led to the loss of air service, lay-offs and financial setbacks for airports.

Pasher told Information Morning Moncton that business has dropped by about 90 per cent — with no end in sight.

"And we're coming into some challenging months in terms of what travel demand would be like in a normal year.

"November is usually a pretty tough month. So in a COVID year, it's pretty challenging."

Atlantic Canada Airports Association
Atlantic Canada Airports Association

Pasher's group is asking "that our Atlantic premiers look at rapid testing as a way forward."

She said rapid testing would drastically cut down on self-isolation periods and might help sway uncertain air travellers about the safety of flying.

"These new rapid tests have been approved by Health Canada," said Pasher. "We would like to pilot some new approaches at our airports and test them and look at the research and see how it would work so that we can move forward, take steps forward in terms of recovery."

She cited a government of Alberta pilot program currently underway at the Calgary airport. Under the International Border Testing Pilot Program, eligible arriving international passengers can volunteer for a free COVID-19 test upon arrival.

Travellers are required to self-isolate until they get a negative test results, but once they do, they're free to move about. All other travellers must self-isolate for 14 days.

Pasher said 14-day-quarantine rules are "very damaging to economies."

"You can do these types of measures to buy time, but really, testing and tracing and tracking in targeted measures is the best way to move forward."

Ian Langsdon/Associated Press
Ian Langsdon/Associated Press

Eight months into the pandemic, she said it's time to look at other options — "use innovation as a way forward, so we don't have to stay in this bubble until there's a vaccine."

While the creation of the Atlantic bubble has kept the number of COVID-19 cases relatively low, it has also drastically reduced the amount of air traffic in and out of the region, said Pasher.

"We feel very vulnerable in this region, not only because of the Atlantic bubble … but also because we're a small regional market. We're one of the smallest markets in Canada ... So it's harder to make money in our market."

She said the region lost 80 per cent of WestJet capacity last month and in June, 11 routes were cut and the station in Bathurst was closed.

"We're quite nervous that if more cuts are to come, they will be targeted at our region as well."

She said the sector will continue to suffer even after the pandemic ends. She said "you don't just flip a switch and everything turns back on."

She said it usually takes three years to develop a new route.

"So when we do move to the other side of COVID, being a small regional rural market like ours, it's harder to get things back up and running."

And if more stations close and more routes are cut, she worries that they may never return.

"So we'd just like to see our government say, 'What's the science out there? Let's look at that, maybe take some small, measured steps forward to analyze it.'"

Pasher said her organization has let the New Brunswick government know what it would like to see for the province's airports.

Provincial Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said in a written statement, "Preliminary meetings are underway between the province and its three major airports to discuss the potential of testing of travellers for COVID-19."