As the first Provincial Airlines flight from Ottawa to St. John's touched down on the runway on Friday, officials at St. John's International Airport said it's finally starting to feel like things are getting back to normal.
"It's a step in the right direction, for sure," said Peter Avery, the airport's chief administrative officer. "It's a new route. It actually looks and feels like an airport again."
The flight from St. John's to Ottawa will run six times a week, and will stop in Deer Lake before heading to the mainland. It's one of 12 new routes announced by Provincial Airlines in June to help fill gaps left by Air Canada and WestJet due to the drop in travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seventy-six passengers disembarked the inaugural flight just after 1:30 p.m. Friday, marking a big day for Janine Brown, PAL's director of business development and sales.
"This is a really exciting day for PAL Airlines, our first flight ever from Ottawa to St. John's," Browne said. "A lot of really excited folks reconnecting with family, here for business, landing in St. John's today. So it's a big day, we're really excited."
Browne said the new flight, along with other recently added local routes to Moncton and Fredericton, are meant to help better connect eastern Canada as travel begins to resume to pre-pandemic levels.
"This is really catapulting off of those flights, and we're extending further now to provide additional connection," she said.
"Coming out of the pandemic, this is the right time. Travel is returning, there's a lot of excitement right now around air travel, around reconnection for friends and family…We're excited to be a part of that solution."
The excitement around travel is already being felt at St. John's International Airport, according to Avery, who said the volume of passengers is beginning to rebound from even earlier this year.
"For the first half of the year we're still down 88 per cent compared to 2019 numbers. But by the look of what we're seeing right now, our traffic since we opened to the rest of Canada is about two, two and a half times what it was in June," he said.
"It's trending in the right direction, [but] it's still going to be a multiyear process, I think, to get back to where we were."
Avery said the airport will continue to need to borrow money for "the next little while" depending on how long the economic recovery takes. The airport laid off 18 per cent of its staff due to the pandemic.
As for PAL Airlines, Browne said she hopes the new flight from St. John's to Ottawa won't be the only addition.
"It sounds a little bit cheesy, but the sky is the limit," she said. "If there's an opportunity that exists … and PAL Airlines is the right regional carrier to be able to fill that, then we're going to do it."