Flyover Country: The State of Air Travel in Saskatchewan

Skyxe Saskatoon Airport
Skyxe Saskatoon Airport

Early this year, Saskatchewan’s two international airports were doing well. Skyxe was coming off its second busiest year, seeing 1.49 million passengers through its terminal in 2019. The airport also had apron expansion plans for overnight aircraft parking and improving groundside road infrastructure. In Regina, flyYQR had seen more renovations—moving retail and food services beyond security, adding a new children’s play area, and improving flight waiting areas with new connectivity at every seat. Both airports had ridden out the 737- Max grounding, and things were looking up. Then, COVID-19 arrived in March.

Disaster Strikes

CJ Dushinski, Skyxe.

At Skyxe, air traffic plummeted by 98 per cent as the pandemic took hold. “COVID-19 was devastating to airlines and airports across the country,” says CJ Dushinski, vice president, business development and service quality at Saskatoon Airport Authority (Skyxe). In Regina, the airport saw just 1.8 per cent of its normal April traffic and for 10 days in May, no commercial flights left YQR at all. “The terminal was a ghost town back then,” says James Bogusz, president and CEO at Regina Airport Authority (flyYQR). Both airports also sprang into action to ensure that passengers would be safe when travelling through their respective terminals. “We added touchless technology, no-contact bag drops and boarding pass printing, social distancing signage and so much more,” says Dushinski. flyYQR increased cleaning, added more hand sanitizing stations and facilitated constant communication between all levels of government and the public as things changed rapidly.

Sliver of Hope

As summer unfolded and cases eased, both airports saw an increase in travel with about 20 per cent of their normal numbers by August. “It’s not the best news, but people seem to be getting more comfortable with flying,” says Dushinski. “Things have slowed a little now that school has started, but we’re seeing about 300 passengers a day.” flyYQR reports similar numbers, serving four destinations down from its usual 23. “Travel to the U.S. has dropped off a cliff,” says Bogusz. “The U.S. border has always been open by air, but travelers perceive it as closed like the land border. And, the 14-day quarantine has made it almost impossible for most people to manage anything beyond essential travel.” However, even with that, flyYQR and Skyxe welcomed a new airline this summer—Flair Airlines, the low-cost air carrier. Flair has been doing well at both airports, serving Vancouver and Toronto with flights that are fairly full, according to Bogusz.

The Fallout

James Bogusz, flyYQR.

James Bogusz, flyYQR.

The ongoing decline in passenger traffic is just one part of the economic story, however. Infrastructure projects at both airports have been indefinitely delayed as Skyxe and flyYQR do what they can to preserve funds to ride out the pandemic. For example, flyYQR had just completed the design work for a $25 million runway overlay project, which is now on hold. “That project is not just runway work,” says Bogusz. “It would create jobs and revenue for local construction, engineers and trades.” Bogusz points out that the project is just one of the economic spinoffs the airport creates for southern Saskatchewan. Normally, flyYQR injects $800 million in the local GDP annually. This year, the pandemic led to layoffs to 30 per cent of the workforce at flyYQR, and the Regina Airport is looking at running out of cash by the end of the year. “While travel is marginally better than it was, the big picture isn’t great. We’ve joined other Canadian airports to lobby the federal government for assistance to get us through COVID-19,” says Bogusz.

Looking Ahead

Beyond public health advice to avoid all non-essential travel, flyYQR sees the 14-day quarantine requirement as one of the big hindrances to travel. Travelers returning to Canada from international destinations are required to isolate at home for two weeks upon return, which eliminates leisure travel for most. “Even if you were comfortable travelling this winter to a sun destination, most people don’t have enough vacation time to cover both the holiday and the quarantine,” says Bogusz. He sees rapid testing as a possible solution for the travel industry as we wait for a viable vaccine. “Rapid testing would offer peace of mind to travelers and the aviation sector. Travelers could be tested with immediate results and would be able to travel more safely. That coupled with clearer messaging from government about travel would do so much for our industry.”

Dushinski agrees with Bogusz about the need for a cohesive response to travel. “Nationally, we need an effort to create solutions to get us through. That could be travel corridors or rapid testing,” she says. “Rapid testing is currently being tried in Europe with a pilot project at Edmonton International Airport. If it works, it could really help our industry recover. It could eliminate the need for the 14-day quarantine altogether.”

While We Wait

As Saskatchewan works our way through the pandemic and waits for a vaccine that hopefully arrives in 2021, both flyYQR and Skyxe have a message for Saskatchewan’s travelers. “We are open for business with extensive measures for your comfort and safety,” says Dushinski. “If you have to travel, we’re here to help you get to your destination in the safest way possib

A Look at Saskatchewan’s Airlines

Kreos Aviation

Kreos Aviation

Kreos Aviation

At the beginning of 2020, Kreos Aviation was enjoying an increase in customer traffic with new clients taking flights, and current clients travelling more. Like the airports, the pandemic slammed into Kreos’s business hard. “We were locked down for the last half of March, except for repatriation flights,” says Rob Johnston, director of business development, Kreos Aviation. “In April, May and June, we had few flights operating.” For each of these organizations, as passengers dried up, so did revenue.

By July, however, things started looking up—way up. Kreos Aviation saw a bump in July—in fact, it was a record month. “Kreos is a charter airline mostly used for business travel in Canada and several U.S. destinations,” says Johnston. “Because our flights are for small groups and traditional commercial schedules were so limited, we saw people moving their business to us.”

August was not quite as busy as July, and September saw more business travel within Canada and some flights to the U.S. “People found us as an alternative to commercial airlines because essential travel still needs to happen,” says Johnston. “We are finding that business travel budgets are being reallocated so that necessary travel happens differently, using a charter.” He believes safety has a lot of do with it, as small flights with small groups make people feel less exposed. “With a charter service like ours, passengers can avoid larger crowds and close contact.”

West Wind Aviation and Transwest Air

In early 2020, West Wind Aviation was merging two companies—West Wind and Transwest Air—and had big plans to improve profitability with new aircraft. The company has several lines of business, including air and cargo service to northern Saskatchewan and remote communities; workforce flights to mining facilities; Medevac/Air Ambulance; helicopter services; and corporate charter flights.

COVID-19 arrived, and the impact was immediate.

They saw their northern Saskatchewan flights drop off a cliff. “Our schedule was virtually non-existent in March and April,” says Stephen Smith, president and CEO, West Wind Group of Companies. “West Wind Aviation is at about 50 per cent of its scheduled flights to the north, and its workforce transportation flights are roughly 60 per cent.” The only arm of the business unaffected was the Medevac flights. They never stopped during the pandemic, and in fact, saw an increase in some medical flights with COVID-19 patients being moved to hospitals in the south.

Like Kreos, West Wind has seen business return. They managed to get back to about 50 per cent of their previous service levels, and Smith has hope that things will continue to turn around. He hopes all the safety measures being seen in Canadian airports and airlines will help travellers get back on planes. “I fly via Toronto and Saskatoon weekly, and both airports’ safety measures are very reassuring. That, plus the eventual easing of the border restrictions so American tourists can come back to fishing camps in northern Saskatchewan will do so much for our province and our industry.”