St. John's airport looks to build on 'positives' from 2022 travel numbers

Lisa Bragg is the director of business development and marketing at St. John's International Airport. (Ted Dillon/CBC - image credit)
Lisa Bragg is the director of business development and marketing at St. John's International Airport. (Ted Dillon/CBC - image credit)
Ted Dillon/CBC
Ted Dillon/CBC

Staff of St. John's International Airport are feeling optimistic about the future after a year that saw passenger numbers rebound since enduring pandemic travel restrictions and the loss of some flight routes.

Lisa Bragg, director of business development and marketing at St. John's International Airport, told CBC News Wednesday she's still waiting on the passenger totals for December but expects the year to finish with about 73 per cent of the passenger totals seen in pre-pandemic years.

That's even with the arrival of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the first quarter of 2022.

"That very much affected our final numbers for the year, but there's a lot of positives from 2022," said Bragg.

"We welcomed two new airlines. We welcomed Swoop with a route to Hamilton and Lynx Air with a route to Toronto Pearson and we saw a lot of growth and recovery from a number of our other tenant airlines."

For 2023, Bragg said the province's busiest airport is working closely with airlines to bring back routes that were lost shortly before or during the pandemic.

She also said St. John's International is working to bring in additional airlines, although those deals haven't been finalized.

But there's still a bit of a climb ahead before YYT returns completely to pre-pandemic passenger levels. Bragg said it's hard to say how long it will take before the airport fully recovers.

Ted Dillon/CBC
Ted Dillon/CBC

"The gap between pre-pandemic and current [levels] is going to take a while to recover from, and I think we need some time in 2023 to see what fleshes out," she said.

"Between the stability of an airline like PAL and the continuity of Air Canada and some of our legacy carriers, they're definitely holding things where we want."

The rebuild and expansion

Airlines, too, are rebuilding after a tough couple of years under the pandemic.

Bragg said Air Canada is struggling with finding pilots and routes from St. John's direct to Europe will "take time" before being reinstated.

"They're building things back in steps and their step process is to do so in larger hubs first," said Bragg.

"We're not quite there yet. YYT is going to take a little longer but that doesn't mean that we're not actively trying and reminding them that we are ready."

St. John's International has the second-highest airport improvement fee in the country at $42. Improvement fees are built in to the price of airline tickets for departing passengers, and the revenues are used to improve infrastructure.

Bragg said that fee doesn't impede business with airlines and pre-pandemic passenger traffic exceeded the national average, meaning the facility couldn't meet passenger demand.

Ted Dillon/CBC
Ted Dillon/CBC

The airport expanded in 2018 and Bragg said she hopes the west end expansion will continue when the time is right. The new expansion will include more parking along with taxi and rental car infrastructure.

But next week St. John's is losing its WestJet route to Halifax.

"That's a key route we're talking to all available airlines about, because we want them to know that the opportunity exists for more capacity," said Bragg.

"It's hard. Your options are different. If you happen to have a delay, your options to get rebooked are not as ample."

As for the issue about transportation from the airport once passengers land, Bragg said YYT is "quite pleased" with its taxi partner, adding nothing is perfect.

She said taxi companies weren't immune to the labour shortage, which caused delays for arriving passengers needing a ride, but have now returned to a level that "matches passenger traffic."

"We have a dispatcher back at the airport now, which really kind of helps the flow," she said.

"It's something that we're never going to take our eye off of and we have a great relationship with the taxi provider."

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