Bathurst airport says it won't make it to summer without government aid
The Bathurst Regional Airport has been operating on a deficit all winter with the expectation that its spring schedule would bring more passenger flights and more revenue, said airport CEO Jamie DeGrace.
"But that didn't materialize. So we're staying open right now, because we're still considered an essential service for the [air] ambulance," said DeGrace.
However, the revenue generated from air ambulances in the span of the entire year "is less than what it costs us to open our runway for two or three snowstorms."
The airport will only be able to operate for a few more months without government support, he said.
DeGrace said the root of the airport's problems is a national pilot shortage, which has airlines deploying their pilots at larger airports, leaving smaller hubs with fewer of the passenger flights that pay their bills.
The airport has four passenger flights a week now, but prior to the COVID-19 pandemic it had multiple flights a day.
Provincial and federal ministers aware
DeGrace believes the shortage is an issue that will be solved with time and the airport needs around $1-million to hang on until that happens.
That's about as much as it costs to pave a kilometre of road, he said.
"A kilometre of paved road gets you down the street and a kilometre of paved runway gets you anywhere in the world."
DeGrace said he's met with all levels of government to ask for support but they're still in early discussions.
Jeff Carr, the provincial minister of transportation and infrastructure, is aware of the issue, a provincial spokesperson said in an email to CBC.
"Jeff Carr did raise the issue with Federal Transport Minister, Omar Alghabra and expressed the need for greater support for regional air services, especially in the Bathurst region," said Tyler McLean.
The federal government provided the airport with $2 million to offset the impacts of the pandemic, a spokesperson for Transport Canada said in an email.
"Minister Alghabra met with the Bathurst Regional Airport to assure them the Government of Canada will continue to support airports across the country," said Hicham Ayoun.
DeGrace said he's very appreciative of the support the airport received from the federal government during the pandemic so far, but said the airport is now burning through its reserves.
Airport key for health-care services
René Legacy, Liberal MLA for Bathurst West-Beresford, said although some would argue that airports are federal jurisdiction, the province should step up financially.
"Based on the services that this airport's been offering, the province — they have to be at the table too, to ensure that there's adequate service for northern New Brunswick," Legacy said.
He said he's been speaking with colleagues at the legislature in an attempt to get them to realize the airport provides a critical service.
The airport is crucial for bringing specialists to the area, said Kim Chamberlain, the mayor of Bathurst.
Without the airport, she said doctors would have to fly into somewhere like Moncton before driving to Bathurst, which takes away from time that could be spent with patients.
"We've been saying it for a while that the north seems to be forgotten," Chamberlain said. "We're always having to work on our own, or always have to, you know, speak louder. And ... we cannot afford to close this airport."
Airport was self-sustaining before pandemic
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the airport was doing well.
"What really disturbs me is the fact that this was a very successful airport," Legacy said.
DeGrace said the number of passengers walking through the door plummeted and hasn't recovered much.
"We used to have, on average, 40,000 to 50,000 passengers, per year," he said. "We're now around 15,000 passengers per year because of the limited schedule that we can offer."
The demand is still there, he said, but the airport just doesn't have the flights to match it.
About 70 per cent of their client base is driving elsewhere to catch flights, DeGrace said.
"We receive lots of concerned calls and wishes that they could be traveling from here, so that they could have the normal access to the rest of the world that the rest of Canada does."