The number of passengers dropped dramatically this year because of COVID-19 with 6,100 passengers in November compared to 36,000 in the same month last year.
“It’s pretty dismal but more than we expected now,” said CEO Brian Grant. “The first part of March was pretty good. We saw about a 50 per cent reduction, and after that until really June, we dropped right off. We probably had five per cent of what we normally have.”
While passenger traffic picked up over the summer, the airport is currently experiencing about a 90 per cent reduction.
Industry analysts say it will be two or three years before traffic returns to last year’s levels.
“We were looking at about 422,000 last year, and right now we’re lucky if we are going to push 60,000 maybe a little more,” Grant said, noting that the airport had not seen numbers this low since the mid-‘90s.
Flight schedules have become harder to gauge because of the virus. In the past, the airport would provide two schedules a year. Now it is monthly with flights often being cancelled.
The airport CEO said he hopes to see numbers improve and is forecasting passenger movement to be up by a third next year. However, it will be a gradual improvement, which will require both area residents wanting to travel again and airlines to be willing to offer more flights.
“They have so many of their aircraft up on blocks right now that it is really going to be a challenge right now for them to respond,” Grant said.
But the airport CEO was also optimistic that a rebound would occur as there is a “pent-up demand” in the region.
“Especially here, we are pretty resilient in this part of the country,” Grant said.
“We could see it pop off a lot quicker than we expect, and I think the only thing that is going to hold us back here are the restrictions.”
When the situation improves, leisure travel is expected to lead the way rather than business.
“I really do believe that through this pandemic, virtual meetings have become the norm, and I think business traffic is never going to be the same again,” Grant said.
“If you can do two or three meetings a day and never leave your home office, all airports are in for a big change when it comes to the business travel… Until the economy really changes, we could see very little business traffic.”
In addition to the pandemic, Alberta’s economy is also playing a role in what Grant believes will be a slower return to normal.
“Our economy here for Alberta along with this (pandemic) is probably holding us back and Fort McMurray compared to others,” he said.
Having no direct flight to Edmonton is likely having an impact as well, but with those flights running well below capacity, cutting them was seen as the economical choice.
Budgeting for the coming year meant some tough decisions had to be made.
“For an airport of our size, there is not an awful lot that we can do or change to save money in operations,” Grant said.
“We run pretty slim as it is you know. We aren’t big, we have lots of infrastructure. We don’t have a lot of chances to save a bunch.”
He added how some airports are cutting back on expenses such as clearing runways and aprons in secondary systems until snow finishes, but there are limitations.
“Regulations are a big part of what we do, so there is not a lot that we can throttle back on.”
The expenses that can be cut back on affect the experience of the passenger like the restaurant/lounge, which had to close recently.
“It is those kind of amenities we have to close because we can’t make the change anywhere else,” Grant said. “This week, we started layoff notifications for the first of January when our new budgets are set and probably 30 to 35 per cent of our staff are going.”
Grant added that decision does not come easy as everyone knows each other it isn’t just a matter of laying off someone who is just a name on a list.
“It is tough, it is. It’s been agonizing. The last month and a half has been pretty tough on everybody. You know the kids. You know the wives or husbands. It’s a tough choice. Luckily, we haven’t had to go through that very many times in my career here.