Greater Moncton airport survival plans: layoffs, debt and holding out for better days

·3 min read

The province's busiest airport is strapped for cash, has laid off a quarter of its staff and is putting off major repairs, but it's doing better than others in the province.

The Greater Moncton Romeo LeBlanc International Airport has done its best to cut costs, but it will still need to go into debt in the coming year, executive director Bernard LeBlanc said Wednesday at a community engagement meeting.

"When we look at passenger activity in the province, you know, it's still quite bad in our situation," he said.

The airport makes most of its money from passengers, and with air travel at about 12 per cent what it was last year, revenue is down significantl, LeBlanc said.

"This is where the picture is not so pretty," he said.

Kate Letterick/CBC News
Kate Letterick/CBC News

About $20 million in revenue had been projected for 2020, especially after a particularly good winter, which saw passenger numbers at an all-time high.

But after factoring in the hit airports took from COVID-19 restrictions, LeBlanc is expecting that number to be cut in half. And 10 per cent of that is coming from the federal government wage subsidy program.

"The good news is we have maintained flights to Montreal, Toronto and now St. John's, Newfoundland, and Deer Lake and Wabush," said LeBlanc.

"That's better than some of our neighbouring airports have done."

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.

LeBlanc said 13 full-time employees and three seasonal workers have been laid off. He said large-scale projects like the planned $11 million resurfacing of one of the airport's main runways, had to be scaled back to a patch job. The repair will still cost $1 million but is necessary to keep the needed runway operational.

Courtney Burns, director of finance and administration, said one of the biggest budget hits is to the airport improvement fund. To try to make up for the shortfall, each passenger ticket will pay $29 in AIF fees. Earlier in the year it was $4.

She said this increase is "essentially meant to meet debt obligations."

Photo: Shane Magee/CBC News
Photo: Shane Magee/CBC News

The airport borrowed money for major projects like a runway extension, and it was being paid off through the AIF fund. Burns said Moncton's fees are now in line with Fredericton and Saint John improvement fees, but even with the hike, it will only allow the airport to continue to pay its debt, not replenish the fund.

According to LeBlanc, good news comes in the form of a 17 per cent increase in domestic cargo shipment weight this year from last year. He named Fed Ex and Cargojet as the two companies responsible for the increase.

He said the airport will try to access as much federal money as possible.

"A lot of things that have been announced, but we're not sure if we qualify for them," said LeBLanc.

"We're really trying to get that clarity."

But the bottom line is, airports need travellers to make money, said LeBlanc.

"Our biggest challenge will be getting back passengers," he said.

"We need to have some alternatives to quarantine for that to happen, so whether it's vaccines or testing, but without getting passengers back, it's very difficult for us to get into a profitable situation again."

He said the best-case scenario is that passenger numbers will be back to the glory days of 2019 by 2024.