Sticker shock, few routes and a long haul to normal: Getting used to post-pandemic travel –

Newfoundland and Labrador has reopened its doors to visitors, and travel activity is gradually picking up. But as John Gushue writes, prices are higher than normal, and no one is expecting travel volumes to return quickly to pre-COVID levels.

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Traffic at St. John’s International Airport has been picking up, but volumes this month are projected to be just 40 per cent of normal. (Curtis Hicks/CBC)

When Newfoundland and Labrador announced it would lift restrictions on non-essential travel for Canada Day, a friend of mine on the mainland hit the web, and then the wall.

She was looking for a fare from southern Ontario St. John’s. Pardon the pun, but she didn’t find it fair at all. With return fares of around $850, she was looking at quotes more than $300 more than expected.

We’ve been hearing a lot of that kind of grumbling as reopening ramps up, and the realities of travel hit the pocketbook. There still aren’t that many flight options yet, rental vehicles — often limited in a busy summer anyway — are scarce everywhere, and the sticker shock on booking airfares is very much a thing.

Premier Andrew Furey acknowledged that last point during Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing at Confederation Building.

“We all recognize the high prices right now,” Furey said. “It is a barrier to entry, so to speak, to our province.”

Furey said while the issue had been flagged earlier this year in a conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he has not had any other conversations with the PM since about it. He noted, though, that he was “sure it will come up” at a first ministers’ call scheduled for this week.

Furey also said Tourism Minister Steve Crocker has raised the issue with the heads of Canada’s airlines. “We’re looking to see how we can solve that collectively,” he said.

Uncharted territory, and a way to go

Not to discount the impact of a strongly worded memo on government letterhead, but this seems to be a complex problem that will take quite a while to untangle. We’re also coming out of uncharted territory.

“There is no magic button that is going to make things go back to normal,” Lisa Bragg, the director of business development and marketing with the St. John’s International Airport Authority, told me.

airline crew member

Airlines have been bringing back crews as the volume of flights has gradually increased. (Curtis Hicks/CBC)

There is a buildback underway, but it’s going to happen slowly and in stages, Bragg said. That is, we should not expect things to be back to the old normal that quickly.

For this month, the airport in St. John’s is expected to run at about 40 per cent of the capacity seen in 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic basically brought the world to a standstill.

You only have to look at the arrivals and departures boards to find evidence. For instance, there are only two flights to Toronto most days, and two coming back. At peak times three years ago, there were 22 daily connections between St. John’s and Toronto between Air Canada and WestJet.

Bragg said even when the year is finished, 2021 may wind up no better overall than the massive dent of 2020, which saw traffic down a whopping 75 per cent.

The numbers of departures and arrivals overall have been increasing in recent weeks (I counted 28 on the board for Friday), but it’s still a far cry from former activity. At pre-pandemic peak, Bragg said, St. John’s had more than 80 daily flights serving at least 24 destinations.

“I can’t tell you when we’re going to get back to that, or if we get back to that,” Bragg said, referring to staple routes like the Toronto run. Predicting anything right now is tricky indeed, she added.

“If I had a crystal ball, I would be so, so popular,” she said with a chuckle.

‘Everyone should be concerned’

The airlines don’t exactly have hangars of aircraft gassed up and ready to leap into the air. Bringing back aircraft, retraining staff, sorting out logistics and other factors will take some time. And then there’s the questions of demand to go with supply. No one knows just how much Canadians want to fly, and where.

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This spring, the federal government and Air Canada reached an agreement involving financial assistance through loans and equity investments. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The sticker shock of prices was curious to me, because I had been reading about how comparatively inexpensive other Canadian connections have been recently, albeit involving bigger hubs.

Travel over the water comes at a cost, too. A friend here in St. John’s told me he put off a quick trip by ferry to Nova Scotia when he priced out the cost of taking his car on Marine Atlantic. He said he wasn’t prepared for the quote.

Personally, even with a double dose of vaccines now in my arm, I find myself not in a real hurry to fly anywhere. Sure, I have been dreamily thinking of trips, but we made summer plans already, with a couple of short excursions to favourite places around the island. A trip somewhere in the country or beyond is down the tarmac, as it were. 

It’s been heartwarming to see family reunions lately, and to hear that hospitality industry players are again getting calls from away. While there may be a healthier shoulder season for tourism into the fall, the real test will be what happens with routine travel as the autumn rolls in.

Air Canada, which provides many of the critical routes connecting N.L. airports with other provinces, says more routes are coming, but indicated to me it may take a while. 

Canadians are currently planning their next trip and there is pent-up demand with people eager to visit family and friends, take deferred vacations or even fly for business reasons,” the airline said in a statement. 

“Traditionally, the months of July and August represents the high season, but due to the context this year, some trips are being pushed to the fall.”

Bragg told me that the pricing issues are a concern, and Furey is right to raise flags.

“He should be concerned,” she said. “Everyone should be concerned about how airfares shake out.”

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