With WestJet’s announcement earlier this month that they are pulling back on most Atlantic Canadian flights beginning in early November, we are seeing a fresh round of public discourse about the number and location of airports in New Brunswick. This is not a debate that New Brunswick needs right now.
The most perplexing version of the debate is the idea that the province should look at creating one airport for the province in Sussex. While a gem of a town, the Sussex Airport idea has inexplicably lingered around since a report commissioned in the 1970s recommended it as the solution to our air access “issues” and is still brought up in a serious way today – in 2020. This is despite the fact that the highway system has been redirected away from Sussex since then, despite that the province’s other airports have seen tremendous growth over the past decade and have seen related infrastructure upgrades, despite the billions it would cost to construct, and despite the reality that all of our airports drive economic growth that desperately needed. Our airports will be pillars of our future economic recovery.
Proponents of a single airport see the impacts of COVID-19 as a new opportunity to revive the discussion. Ignoring that prior to the pandemic, passenger growth at YFC (and others, but I’ll focus on the Fredericton airport here) has been steadily increasing – now is not the time to overact. We will get through this and will need good air access to recover and move our economy forward. Our province’s airports are an economic spark plug for business, tourism, and trade contributing over $777 million in total economic impact annually and accounting for nearly 4,000 FTE jobs in the province. Cuts within the airport ecosystem will have dire effects for our community’s ability to recover.
The pandemic won’t last forever, and we should remember that airports are economic drivers in-and-of-themselves. Here in Fredericton, the airport has seen a decade of consistent, record-breaking growth and in 2017 an independent study determined that YFC contributed 38.8 million in GDP, $8 million in taxes, and supported 662 jobs in our region. In response to this decade of growth, the federal and provincial governments partnered with the airport authority to fund a $23-million expansion and renovation of the Fredericton International Airport, which is almost complete. Times are tough right now, but this track record of success puts YFC in a solid position to work with airlines and help New Brunswick’s economy recover from the current crisis – when the time is right.
The fledgling stages of a 100-year pandemic and a global economic crisis unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes is actually the worst time possible to try to gather data, make assumptions, projections and estimates in order to create policy that will have effects on generations of New Brunswickers. This is even more true for the airline industry and air travel than other industries – and particularly in Atlantic Canada, given that the “Atlantic Bubble” has been in place for six months.
In short, the data that could be collected at this time would be a snapshot of an economic climate that could not be comprehended less than a year ago and will not exist in a short number of years. Airlines are temporarily pulling back from service across the globe – this is not unique to our region – as evidenced by Porter Airlines pausing their operations entirely.
The fact that our airports have seen passenger declines of upwards for 95% is not a reason to look at shutting down air service in Atlantic Canada – quite the opposite. It’s a time to provide temporary, targeted government support to get our airports through the crisis. Airports that have seen month-over-month and year-over-year growth for nearly a decade prior to the pandemic, which was continuing into 2020 before the COVID-19 crisis hit home. Any business in any industry would be eager to have this kind of success and be actively investing in their operation – and this is exactly what was happening at our airports, particularly in Fredericton and Moncton, which have seen major infrastructure upgrades recently in an effort to accommodate their steady growth trajectories.
Local airports facilitate economic growth in a number of ways for a region focused on the global economy and increasing our population through immigration. New Brunswick is already the most export-dependent province in the country and our next major wave of exports will likely be services. Success in sectors such as biosciences, information and communications technology, engineering and many others means that the Fredericton Region is creating a hub of expertise that we can bring to the world. Municipal and provincial economic development partners are developing plans and programs to help spur even more exporting activities through such initiatives as Ignite Fredericton’s pending Export Accelerator that the Chamber is collaborating on. Easy air access and a strong and modern airport is central to our economy, continuing to develop growth, and welcoming newcomers.
Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’