The number of passengers flying out of Fort McMurray is rebounding toward pre-pandemic levels after airport traffic crashed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The airport lost as much as 90 per cent of its traffic during the pandemic. But now traffic is at about 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, said RJ Steenstra, president and CEO of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority.
"Not a great situation, but certainly better than other airports fared across the country," said Steenstra.
Flights are coming back as well, he said, citing there are now flights to Toronto twice a week.
He attributes the increase in traffic to lifted restrictions, a desire to see family and friends and an increased public confidence that it's safe to fly.
As well, the increase in travel is indicative of the overall local economy, said Kevin Weidlich, president and CEO of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development & Tourism.
The greatest driver of air passenger traffic, he explains, is people flying to Fort McMurray for the oilsands. As oilsands operations increase, "more people to move back and forth in the region."
Steenstra, however, expects volatility in traffic levels through the fall, depending on how public health restrictions change. But part of that falls on airport capacity, he said.
"You can only fill airplanes when they're there," said Steenstra. "The whole country is dealing with challenges when it relates to labour."
Last June, the airport authority was approved for a $15 million grant from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The airport also received $3.9 million through different programs from the federal government.
"It stabilizes us somewhat financially for the next little while," said Steenstra.
"When you don't have passengers, you don't have revenue."
Fort McMurray International Airport passenger traffic 2006-2020
The airport authority predicts it will take three years to get back up to pre-COVID-19 passenger levels, he said.
Steenstra is optimistic the airport is at the start of its recovery.
Flair Airlines leaves Fort McMurray indefinitely
The recent climb in travel wasn't enough to keep one airline.
Flair Airlines started flying out of Fort McMurray in August 2020. But the industry was tumultuous over the past two years, so Flair has indefinitely suspended services there, said Garth Lund, the airline's chief commercial officer.
"There just wasn't sufficient demand to make the route economically viable," said Lund.
Four Flair flights departed Fort McMurray every week: two to Vancouver and two to Toronto.
The company is not planning to restart those routes next year, Lund said.
Fort McMurray International Airport monthly traffic (2019-2021)
The airline would look at re-introducing flights if the passenger levels hit what they were in 2019, he said.
Westjet, meanwhile, is at about 70 per cent of pre-pandemic service levels, said Andy Gibbons, vice president of government relations and regulatory affairs for WestJet.
In 2019, WestJet was running 58 flights a week. During the pandemic, the numbers of flights dipped as low as 19 per week, but are currently at 43, Gibbons said.
There was an uptick in travel within Canada in July and August, as many people travelled to see friends and family, he cited.
Westjet's No. 1 priority right now, however, is getting back to pre-pandemic traffic levels, he said.
"This is not the moment where we're looking at new adventures."
A main barrier is travel guidance hasn't evolved much, said Gibbons, who is looking to the federal government to change advisories on non-essential travel.
The situation has changed, he said, citing WestJet employees are 98 per cent vaccinated, and will be fully vaccinated by the end of October.