By Steve Scherer and David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday insisted Ottawa would ensure airlines survived the COVID-19 pandemic even as industry advocates said that without a promised aid package many routes would die, crippling the economy.
Air travel is critical for Canada, the second largest country by area and one which stretches across six time zones. For many communities, flights are the only reliable option.
The government and major airlines such as Air Canada and WestJet have been in talks for months about an aid package but insiders say the negotiations are going slowly.
"Canada needs and will have a vibrant competitive airline industry after this is all done. That is one of our fundamental understandings," Trudeau told Reuters in a phone interview.
"We're having great discussions with them (the airlines), we're continuing to, but we're just needing to make sure that the package is right for Canadians, right for the industry and right for the future."
Air Canada has slashed bases and routes, particularly in the Atlantic region, prompting fears about the impact if the services do not return.
The head of the Business Council of Canada and the Unifor trade union issued an open appeal to Trudeau on Thursday, saying it was "both baffling and tragic" that Ottawa had not yet come up with an aid package.
"Without government assistance, a vital part of Canada's national strategic infrastructure will suffer serious damage,' they said.
Trudeau said there had already been "massive disruptions" to service in Atlantic Canada and said Ottawa's priority was to ensure regional routes were restored.
Atlantic Canada covers almost 195,000 square miles (500,000 sq km) with a population of just 2.3 million people. Air Canada alone has shut down six bases and scrapped 17 routes in the region.
Residents in Halifax, the largest city in the region, and one which has lost six Air Canada routes, urged Trudeau and the government to ensure the connections survived.
"To get anywhere you either need to have a car and drive like 15 hours or you have to fly. So removing the flight option affects a lot of people," said Myra Davis, 21. "It almost becomes a necessity, a basic need for the public."
Most of the cut routes and bases are in parliamentary constituencies held by Trudeau's Liberal Party, which has 26 of the region's 32 seats in the House of Commons.
If routes do not come back and he is blamed, it could pose a political risk in an election that many insiders predict will come later this year.
Margaret Brigley, chief executive officer of Halifax pollster Narrative Research, said the issue was not in the headlines for the time being because no one was traveling. The firm's most recent polling showed the Liberals still had a commanding lead in the region, she said.
(Additional reporting by Heather Fegan in Halifax; Editing by Daniel Wallis)