Since becoming the new MP for Regina-Wascana, part of my routine has been to stay in regular touch with business leaders throughout the city. The pandemic has, of course, made in-person meetings more difficult but, like all of us, my staff and I have adapted with expanded use of Zoom and phone meetings.
One business leader with whom I have spoken often during the pandemic is James Bogusz, President and CEO of the Regina Airport Authority (RAA). While we have all suffered from the pandemic, Canada’s airports have been one of the worst-hit industries. The RAA, like many other airports, have lost over 90 per cent of their revenue, have drained their cash reserves and are sinking into ever-deeper levels of debt.
This creates a significant danger for hopes for our country’s post-COVID economic recovery. Airports’ debt levels could well lead to reductions in service at the very moment that we need them to grow.
As well, airports represent an important part of the economy in their own right. They collectively employ 200,000 Canadians, pay $13 billion in wages and $7 billion in taxes. Here again it is evident that cuts to service at airports would drain money out of the economy at exactly the wrong time.
The federal government’s response, to date, to the plight of airports has been laughable. They made a show out of announcing that they were forgiving $200 million worth of ground leases. What they neglected to mention is that airports’ ground leases are already calculated as a percentage of revenue. With airports’ revenues dropping to near-zero levels, they already, automatically were paying minimal ground leases.
The feds have promised to deliver a more robust package for airports but, according to my contacts in the industry, the progress on developing this package has been slow and bureaucratic – especially in contrast with the Trudeau government’s mad rush to develop other programs such as the summer student volunteer program.
Of course, it’s not just the airports that are suffering but also the airlines that face imminent insolvency. In the aftermath of the initial pandemic travel restrictions, there is a great deal of fear and uncertainty amongst the general public about air travel which has made it hard for the airlines to rebuild their business. The federal government has, in my view, been negligent in letting Canadians know that airplane travel is safe. Despite the fearmongering in the media, the fact is that worldwide there hasn’t been a single verified case of someone contracting COVID on an airplane since March.
Standing up for the RAA has been one of my key priorities over the last few months. In June, I raised the issue in Question Period in the House of Commons and have continued to talk about it in the media.
But all the advocacy in the world won’t help if people don’t start returning to the skies. Safety must always be the top priority but airports and airlines have a COVID safety record that is second to none. I can personally vouch for this as I have, obviously, had to travel by air back and forth to Ottawa all through the pandemic. I would suggest to Regina’s business community that, while we need to stay safe, we also need to start to think about coming out of our bunkers and allow ourselves to once again fly the friendly skies.