Nanaimo Airport. (News Bulletin file photo)

Nanaimo Airport. (News Bulletin file photo)

Nanaimo Airport coping with low passenger counts, uncertain recovery

Airport CEO Dave Devana says it will take years to return to pre-pandemic passenger levels

Travel, particularly airline travel, has been one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic.

Across Canada, airlines and airports have had to adapt to steep declines in passenger volumes. The Nanaimo Airport, which had experienced years of record growth, saw passenger counts fall by 95 per cent in April and recovery has been slow.

“We were projecting just around 39,000 passengers, and we got 1,900,” Nanaimo Airport CEO Dave Devana said, recalling the immediate effects of the pandemic.

Devana recently took over the role of CEO from Mike Hooper. Devana’s experience as CEO has been far from what he expected.

“I was expecting to come to an airport that was the fastest-growing airport in British Columbia over the last 10 years with over 200-per cent growth, but that’s not what was presented. So now we’re trying to grow back to where we were. I’m confident we will get there, it’s just going to take time.”

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To meet the economic challenge posed by the sudden passenger reduction, the Nanaimo Airport held off hiring new staff and deferred planned capital projects. Prior to the pandemic, the Nanaimo Airport completed the expansion of its terminal building and had completed upgrades to the security area. The airport planned to expand the apron – the area where planes park – but that project has been deferred.

“We deferred that project until probably next year [or] even the year after or until an infrastructure program becomes available, which we do think may happen as governments try to recover from the pandemic,” Devana said.

He is hoping that the federal and provincial governments will provide support to smaller airports. He said that the Canada emergency wage subsidy program was helpful for the Nanaimo Airport, but the funding is not enough when faced with revenue reductions of 70 per cent.

“It’s difficult to run an airport when you have very little revenue coming in, but you’re expected to keep the infrastructure in place and operate the airport, even when there’s fewer flights,” Devana said.

The Nanaimo Airport is doing better now than back in April; however, it is nowhere near normal levels of service. Devana said that the airport is operating at a 68-per cent reduction in service compared to 2019. Number have been consistently down 68-70 per cent over the past three months.

“We’re not expecting any improvements until there either is rapid testing program to test people for COVID-19 when they get on and off the plane, or the vaccine arrives,” Devana said.

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As it stands now, WestJet operates one or two flights daily from Nanaimo to Calgary and Air Canada operates between two and three flights daily from Nanaimo to Vancouver. That’s a significant reduction in service compared to what the carriers would normally expect.

Devana doesn’t expect passenger counts to return to 2019 levels until at least 2023 or 2024.

“We’re a regional airport. A lot of the passengers leaving here are going to either Vancouver or Calgary and are going on international flights. At this time international flights are shut down for the most part. Until that improves and people decide they’re prepared to travel around the world again, we feel like our numbers will be kept down, even if there is a vaccine in Canada,” Devana said. “People want to feel safe when they get on a plane, and more importantly they want to feel safe when they get off the plane wherever they’re going.”

That safety and confidence in travel will be key to the future of the Nanaimo Airport. Once the COVID-19 pandemic ends, the airport will look to reinstate its service to Toronto, Edmonton and the United States, and add service routes to sun destinations like Mexico and Hawaii.

“We feel that these routes will come to the Nanaimo Airport at some point. It’s just a matter of whether it’s in 2021, 2022, or 2023,” Devana said.

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