Small market airport operators in Newfoundland and Labrador are hoping Sunwing Airlines' summer domestic flight schedule gives them a boost after their struggles with mass cuts to travel services amid the pandemic.
Sunwing will introduce two weekly flights between Gander and Toronto, one between Stephenville and Toronto, and a Monday-to-Friday schedule between St. John's and Toronto in June.
In Stephenville, where services were decimated by the exit of Porter Airlines and PAL — as well as Sunwing's cancellation of its summer schedule last year — the return of a weekly flight between the community and the country's largest city is an important first step, says Mayor Tom Rose. The town has put money into keeping the airport viable, including hiring Winnipeg Airport Services Corporation to help manage the struggling service.
"Being an airport town, having Sunwing reinstate service after the cancellations, a really tough year on the aviation business and really a global year of devastation in transportation, for Stephenville and the region we're very delighted to have Sunwing come back," Rose told CBC News.
Rose said he hopes airlines like Sunwing will look to increase their services in his community by adding more flights or by adding flights to southern destinations from Stephenville over the winter months in two or three years, in the expectation there will be a recovery period once the pandemic is over.
"I'm really excited. It's a big step forward for Stephenville.… Most airports have lost service, but we're starting to see it come back," he said.
In central Newfoundland, Gander International Airport Authority CEO Reg Wright isn't so convinced.
Wright told CBC News that while he's happy about the added flights for his airport, the success of the twice-weekly service between Gander and Toronto still depends on the pandemic response from the province and the remainder of the country.
"I think it would be certainly a great service for the summer. That assumes that the conditions are appropriate," Wright said.
"I'm like everyone else, I think it would be a major shot in the arm for the community and the airport, but it depends [on] how it's patronized, depends largely on where we're going to be with travel restrictions and quarantine."
Wright said it's hard to gauge how much of an impact the Sunwing flights will have. If, when the flights return in June, a 14-day quarantine period still exists for those entering the province, it will "massively impact leisure travel," he said.
Gander lost all of its Air Canada services over the course of the pandemic for routes inside and outside of the province.
"It's not COVID or the pandemic, it's the quarantine that kills the demand for travel," he said.
"You have to think about are there arrival testing measures put in place tied to quarantine reduction and will there be some acceptance of immunity credentials. In other words, are those who are vaccinated — hopefully there will be lots of Canadians by then — are they free to travel? Does that move the needle at all? If it doesn't move the needle then I don't know where that leaves us."
Air Canada planning a return
In St. John's, Peter Avery calls Sunwing's announcement "cautious optimism."
Avery, CEO of the St. John's International Airport Authority, told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show there's a vacuum in St. John's right now with no service to Toronto.
"I think what you see from Sunwing is hedging some bets a little bit and hoping that vaccines will roll out and we'll be able to travel again this summer," Avery said.
St. John's lost a direct Air Canada flight to Toronto in January, as well as the airline's flights to Gander, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Deer Lake in June. It also lost WestJet's direct flight to Ontario in October.
Avery said other flight providers will delay starting their services in Newfoundland and Labrador this year until they see health restrictions easing.
"I think the Air Canada flight was initially suspended until April 16 and now it's May 1. That's the flight to Toronto," he said.
"So I think that's just an indication of while restrictions are still in place and until vaccines are rolled out there's some hesitancy, obviously, in people booking and they can't travel with restrictions in place, hence airlines are having to push their startup dates further."
In a statement to CBC News Air Canada confirmed it's planning to bring back a Toronto-to-St. John's route as of May 1, as well as the Happy Valley-Goose Bay route to St. John's on July 1.
"But Air Canada will continue to evaluate and adjust its route network as required in response to the trajectory of the pandemic and travel restrictions," the company said.