Canada's national air traffic controller is laying off 720 people and closing flight information centres in at least two major airports, including Winnipeg, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The job cuts — which amount to nearly 15 per cent of the corporation’s workforce — were announced as the country’s aviation industry is collapsing “like a wildfire” amid COVID-19 lockdowns and dwindling air travel, increasing demands for emergency aid from the federal government.
Canadian airline revenues in 2020 will fall by $14.6 billion or 43 per cent from last year, according to estimates from the International Air Transport Association.
In Manitoba, Nav Canada is also assessing whether further cost-cutting measures will be enforced at four other locations: Brandon, Churchill, Flin Flon and The Pas.
“The layoffs affect all departments across the company,” Nav Canada spokesman Brian Boudreau confirmed in a statement to the Free Press Thursday. That includes advisory services, weather safety assessment, aeronautical operations and student trainees who work for Nav Canada.
“We continue to monitor the impact of the pandemic,” he said. “And will continue to take steps as they are necessary to align service with traffic levels while maintaining the integrity of the air navigation system.”
But as two out of Canada’s seven flight information centres close in Winnipeg and Halifax, it remains to be seen how vital air safety and navigation data will be provided to pilots or dispatchers in those areas. The closest centre to Winnipeg’s Richardson International Airport is two provinces away, in Alberta.
Services in Kamloops, Whitehorse, Edmonton, London and Quebec City continue in the meantime, said Boudreau, adding the responsibility will fall on them to fulfill the role of centres that have shuttered.
As a non-profit organization, Nav Canada’s revenue comes from its aviation customers — such as regional or international airliners, helicopter businesses and charter or cargo operators. While income from cargo operations has sustained pre-pandemic levels, revenue expected from all other sources has come to a standstill.
Dan Rutherford, manager of business development at Fast Air Ltd., said he’s “confident these cuts will create a very unsafe environment for airlines” such as his Winnipeg-based aviation company.
“But I’m not entirely surprised to see these cuts because the industry is staffed for a reality that doesn’t exist right now,” he said. “The fact is, this is adding on top of the pressure we’re already seeing with increased operator and airliner fees at airports while we struggle to make any ends meet.”
The closures and layoffs as a result of revenue declines have renewed a sense of urgency to demands for relief dedicated to the aviation sector, as the Liberals’ throne speech mentioned “support for regional routes for airlines” without sharing any other details on Wednesday.
The governor-general’s address in Ottawa was the first time since late May when then-finance minister Bill Morneau announced the waiving of ground lease rents for airports until the end of 2020. Since then, there has been no direct financial aid from the federal government.
A joint-statement issued Thursday by Conservative MPs Marty Morantz (Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley), James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman and shadow minister for national defence), and Stephanie Kusie (Calgary Midnapore and shadow minister for transport) said: “When Canada had a shortage of personal protective equipment at the start of this pandemic, it was aviation workers who stepped up and worked to bring shipments of PPE to frontline workers. When Canadians were stranded abroad, it was aviation workers who helped bring them back to Canada to be reunited with their families. Aviation workers have stepped up when Canadians needed them.
“The Trudeau government must step up and deliver a plan to help these workers get back on their feet.”
“We’re all nibbling around the bits to cut any costs wherever we can,” said Tyler MacAfee, speaking on behalf of Winnipeg Airports Authority in an interview. “But our core costs will remain the same no matter what, and we aren’t hearing anything concrete from the government.”
Currently at a staggering average of about 10 per cent activity, most Canadian airports — from St. John’s to Vancouver — continue to voice concerns heading into the fall.
“It’s great to see a mention from the government for once,” said McAfee, “but now it’s time to step up and give us something concrete.”
Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press