It is difficult to overstate the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to the Canadian aviation industry.
The past two years have presented Canadian airlines and airports with an unprecedented challenge, in which they have had to constantly adapt to a series of rapidly changing circumstances that have essentially paralyzed their growth for two years. Since March 2020, the Canadian aviation sector has seen an 85% to nearly 100% drop in passenger numbers, with tighter restrictions on air travel helping to make the situation even more dire. The result has been colossal revenue losses and mounting pandemic-related debt, as well as deep uncertainty about the future and recovery of the industry.
Throughout the pandemic, Canadian airlines have done everything our federal government has asked of them by complying with a wide range of requests, cooperating closely with public health officials regarding quarantine requirements and complying with testing and screening procedures.
While it goes without saying that government demands on the aviation industry may have been necessary in the face of widespread uncertainty and lack of information at the start of the pandemic, the need for strict measures has become less obvious as that the pandemic was progressing, especially in the presence of high vaccination levels and growing evidence suggesting that air travel is safe.
As we finally seem to be reaching a point where we can enjoy the free movement of people with fewer and fewer COVID restrictions, we can certainly expect to see a rapid increase in air traffic. That being said, the temporary health measures have not been without cost to the aviation industry, which now faces the challenge of navigating the uncertainty of its own recovery and future. The reality of a growing labor shortage and weakened supply chain, exacerbated by the effects of continued restrictions on the travel sector, presents a potential challenge to the industry’s ability to manage the growing demand in the future and jeopardizes its recovery.
As recently as January 2022, we have seen large airliners reduce the number of scheduled flights due to a lack of staff, at a time when the need for staff was greater due to all the measures additional controls put in place.
Many experts predict that travel demand will eventually come back even stronger than it was before the pandemic. This leaves Canada’s aviation sector vulnerable and unprepared to deal with increased demand in an environment where the travel industry is fundamentally different than it was two years ago, threatening to limit its growth and reduce its competitiveness.
The reality is that the airline industry has been forever disrupted by the pandemic and its future will likely be more unstable and uncertain than ever. This requires increased adaptability and responsiveness from industry and government. It is perhaps not unfair to say that the federal government’s slow response during the pandemic to provide the industry with meaningful assistance has only exacerbated the consequences on the aviation sector itself. even and also on our economy. Now that the industry is looking towards post-COVID recovery, there is no time to waste.
It is imperative that the aviation industry has the freedom and flexibility to reform in this time of crisis. Now is an opportunity for the government to do what it has not done before and take bold and quick steps towards reforms that encourage innovation and tackle the barriers that hinder business operations and the competitiveness of the industry. If the government was unwilling to seize this opportunity, it would do well to step aside and allow aviation to work on industry-led reforms as quickly as possible. Any further delay risks jeopardizing a vital part of our national infrastructure and our economy.
Senator Leo Housakos represents the division of Wellington in Quebec. He is president of Senate Transportation and Communications Committee.
This article appeared in the April 4, 2022 edition of hill time.