Ottawa opens door to $740M in airport funding

·3 min read

Following nearly a year of calls to save them from drastic losses, the federal government is at long last opening the door to around $740 million in capital investments for airports across Canada over the next six years.

But the Winnipeg Airports Authority — which has only revealed grim financial outlooks since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — isn’t sure how much of those dollars will be coming its way.

And neither does the local airport or other industry leaders believe it’s enough support to pull back on the massive turbulence caused since last year, due to travel restrictions and lockdowns which affected their primary source of income: passenger volumes.

“As Canada works towards recovery and travel restart post-pandemic, we’re hoping this funding will help allow our airports to remain viable and continue to provide Canadians with safe, reliable and efficient travel options, while creating and maintaining good paying jobs in the airport sector,” said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, providing some new details of the funding at a Tuesday virtual news conference.

Alghabra did not have many specifics about how exactly the program funding will be doled out, repeating to reporters multiple times that they should “stay tuned.”

Last week, Alghabra said G7 countries are working towards a “common platform for recognizing the vaccinated status of travellers” — a major ask from airports like Winnipeg’s that have been calling for such measures to allow the safe resumption of international travel so they can make their own revenue without depending on government supports.

“There’s discussion about what a vaccine certificate would look like, what are the thresholds, what are the testing regimes that need to stay in place,” Alghabra said Tuesday, but declined to offer any timelines, saying it hinges on public-health conditions.

In an interview with the Free Press, the vice-president of government relations for the Winnipeg Airports Authority said they’ve been “waiting more than patiently” for this type of funding.

“We’re obviously very happy to be getting this because anything that’s going to help our numbers is amazing to us right now,” said Tyler MacAfee on Tuesday. “But just look at our fiscal statements right now — you can clearly see how challenging this has happen and how little this would still be in comparison to that.”

Revenue for Canada’s seventh-busiest airport in 2021 is a shell of what it was only in early 2020, let alone previous years. The Winnipeg airport saw consolidated revenue for the first quarter at $10.9 million, versus $31.3 million for the first quarter in 2020.

The number of passengers moving through Winnipeg declined by 88.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to last year. And that trend appears to only be moving downward, with first-quarter traffic 25.3 per cent lower than the fourth quarter of 2020.

In 2020, that reduction translated into a $73.5-million decrease for the company’s revenue which is 52.6 per cent lower than 2019. The airport ended 2020 with a net loss of $40.3 million compared to an income of $3.5 million in 2019.

Out of Tuesday’s announcement of $740 million in federal funding, about $490 million is automatically bound for large airports to put toward critical infrastructure such as runway repairs and transit stations.

Most of the rest is en route to smaller airports, whose definition has been loosened temporarily to allow eight more sites to apply, from Prince George, B.C., to Gander, N.L.

Canadian Airports Council president Daniel-Robert Gooch said any federal support is welcome, but that even half a billion dollars for large airports falls short of the aid required.

“It is good to see federal government commitments made in the fall economic statement being fulfilled, with funds flowing to airports soon,” he said. “Unfortunately, the situation is worse than it was when these measures were announced five months ago.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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