Airport's outlook 'a lot brighter' after recent passenger gains, official says

Air Canada plane

After passenger volumes plummeted in 2020 and much of 2021, Ottawa airport is seeing a steady ascent in traffic that suggests the aviation industry is starting to climb out of its pandemic-fuelled funk, officials say.

“Things are starting to look a lot brighter,” Krista Kealey, the vice-president of communications at the Ottawa International Airport Authority, said in a recent interview on OBJ’s Behind the Headlines podcast. “There’s a lot of pent-up travel demand.”

Kealey said that while this year’s projected total passenger volume of one million is well below the 5.1 million travellers who used the facility in 2019, the number of people flying in and out of YOW is growing by the month.

About 170,000 passengers passed through the Ottawa airport last month. That’s still only about half of the volume of traffic the facility saw in a typical September before the pandemic, but it’s a big step up from earlier this spring and summer, when passenger volumes in April, May and June were less than 10 per cent of their pre-COVID levels.

Kealey said it appears passengers are getting more comfortable with air travel as vaccination rates continue to rise and more restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 are lifted. She said there’s “a lot of support” for a federal government policy that will require all air travellers to be fully vaccinated as of Oct. 30.

New routes

“It’s going to take us some time to get back (to pre-pandemic passenger levels), but at least we’re on the right trajectory towards that,” Kealey said.

In a sign that the industry is gradually recovering, a growing number of airlines have begun resuming service or launching new routes at the Ottawa airport in the past few months. 

More than 60 flights are now serving the capital each day, down from about 110 before the pandemic but up substantially from fewer than 20 daily arrivals and departures this spring. 

Most recently, Air Canada said it plans to start flying between Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport and Ottawa at the end of the month. Kealey called the announcement a “nice surprise” given that the country’s largest air carrier hasn’t operated a route between Toronto Island and the nation’s capital for 15 years.

“I know business travel isn’t back to where it was, but I know that’s a very important route for Ottawa’s business travellers,” she said.

The boost in traffic is a welcome bit of news for a facility that’s taken a massive financial hit over the past 18 months.

The airport – which relies on improvement fees charged to passengers as well as terminal and landing fees, concession revenues and parking fees for most of its revenues – racked up a net loss of $51.2 million in 2020 and expects to incur an even bigger deficit this year.

In an effort to rein in spending, the airport paused virtually all non-essential capital projects, laid off 18 employees and didn’t fill nearly a dozen other vacancies. 

CEO Mark Laroche said this spring the airport authority might need to borrow as much as $100 million to cover this year’s losses, adding it would likely take “several years” for the non-profit facility to restore its full complement of pre-COVID routes and get delayed infrastructure projects back on track.