Air transportation: Build back better? At least just build back
The New Brunswick government has a new air sector strategy out. I’d say this was highly anticipated mainly because one of the options on the table was closing the three southern airports and building one in Sussex. This option was, after listening to the Minister’s statement, emphatically ruled out. I had said before it was unlikely the provincial bureaucrats in Freddy influencing this decision would have wanted to drive all the way to Sussex to jet up to Ottawa.
Another option on the table was to centralize airport administration under one NB authority. It might have reduced admin costs and surely would have increased ‘collaboration’. I’m not sure why this idea wasn’t pursued. There may have been jurisdictional issues and I am sure the boards of the four airports would have been mostly opposed. Personally I’m not sure this would have been a great idea as there could be value in the competition between them.
I am hearing anecdotally that things are still really bad at our airports. I haven’t used one yet (next week will be the first time) but just about everyone who travels regales me with stories of cancellations, long waits, cranky staff and - at the big airports crazy wait times. Crucially, I hear passenger numbers are not rebounding here compared to some (but this is just anecdotal).
My concern is that we will never get back to even the way it was before. Forget about build back better. I’d take just build back.
What I would like to see is the provincial government (or someone else) be tracking prices, routes, volumes, etc. now compared to before the pandemic to see if things are really getting back to ‘normal’. My hunch is the airlines - particularly Air Canada - would like to marginalize New Brunswick but hopefully competition - WestJet, Porter, etc. will help squelch that natural instinct. We should issue an annual report showing how air travel compares here to Saskatchewan, Manitoba and other smaller provinces. Again we should use this data to help plan and promote.
As an example, I just look at flying from Moncton to Vancouver a month from now and the return airfare was over $1,200. It was significantly cheaper from Halifax and Quebec City and you will be happy to know it was cheaper to fly from Bangor, Maine to Vancouver - international travel - than to fly from Moncton. For someone living in Moncton it would add 20 hours to the trip each way but you would save a couple of hundred😁.
Air transportation, as the Minister said in her remarks, is critical to the functioning of a modern, open economy. How do you think all the immigrants settling here - get here? How about the thousands of international students? How about all the business travel back and forth? And there is the real need for NBers to be connected to the world too.
I would track the data much better and then plan route support and strategy around that.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t raise the issue I always raise when talking about airports. I still think we need a ‘Bathurst’ level airport in Edmundston. I did some research way back in the 1990s that seemed to show communities that are out of the catchment area of an airport tend to do worse over the long run. I know you will say there are too many other variables to make this definitive conclusion and you are correct.
However, according to Google Maps, Edmundston is 2.5 hours from the Fredericton airport by car, three hours from the Bathurst airport and it doesn’t look like there is scheduled service from Riviere-du-Loup or anywhere close by in Maine (Presque Isle International Airport is 1.5 hours away by car not including border issues).
Set up a commuter run into a hub airport a couple of times a day and charge passengers $40 or so for the airport fee - promote it heavily to potential passengers in northern Maine and eastern Quebec. It might require some modest government support - certainly with the capital investment.
You can call it the D.W Campbell Airport in appreciation for me flogging it all these years.