Halifax Stanfield International Airport – Pandemic puts pressure on our region’s largest airport

Halifax Stanfield is one of the most critical pieces of transportation infrastructure in Atlantic Canada, and a key economic generator that is and will be essential to our region’s recovery. All of Canada’s airports, including Halifax Stanfield, have played an important role in the nation’s response to the pandemic from the beginning. 

In 2020, Covid-19 damped what should have been an amazing year and celebration for the airport as it was a double anniversary year for Halifax Stanfield International Airport. In addition to the 60th anniversary of the opening of the airport, the airport also celebrated 20 years of “new management” under the Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA).   

Spotlight on Business spoke with Joyce Carter, President and CEO and Paul Baxter, Senior Vice President Operations & Chief Operating Officer of Halifax International Airport Authority on how they are preparing to rebuild air connections for the community at Atlantic Canada’s largest airport and connect to the world. 

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On September 10, 2020, Halifax Stanfield International Airport (Halifax Stanfield) marked its 60th anniversary, but the occasion was not honoured like it would have been in previous years. After all, in September, the COVID-19 pandemic had been underway for six months, and with no end in sight, there was little cause for celebration. Instead, the airport was facing the stark reality that its 60th year was shaping up to be one of the worst in aviation history.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically affected airports across Canada and around the world, and Halifax Stanfield is no exception. The airport, which had just wrapped up another successful year of strong passenger and cargo activity in 2019, first felt the effects of the pandemic when the virus was causing significant disruption in Asia, where there’s a big appetite for Nova Scotia seafood. Cargo flights from the airport dropped suddenly, from an average of seven to eight weekly flights to Asia, to just one.

“The health and safety of our passengers, employees and community has always been our top priority,” said Joyce Carter, President and CEO of Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA). “As soon as we saw the effects of COVID-19 could extend to our part of the world, we activated our pandemic plan and began working with our partners on next steps.”

Carter said little did they know, this was only the tip‐of‐the‐iceberg, in terms of the impact COVID‐19 would have, not only the airport, but on the entire province, industry and citizens around the world.

By March, travel restrictions were implemented by the Government of Canada and Government of Nova Scotia, requiring anyone entering the country or province, respectively, to self-isolate for 14 days. A provincial State of Emergency was declared, and governments advised against non-essential travel. At the airport, an enhanced cleaning program was introduced, public seating was removed in the food court, and hand sanitizers were deployed to ensure those who were travelling for essential reasons were comfortable and supported along their journey.

In response to the border restrictions and increasing COVID-19 cases around the world, the airport saw far fewer travellers, resulting in drastic cuts to air service frequencies and flight options – most of which are still in place today. Looking back at 2019, Halifax Stanfield served 4.2 million passengers, with 200 flights a day flying to 46 destinations across Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Today, there are only about a dozen flights each day connecting Halifax to a handful of domestic destinations. Passenger traffic on average has been down 90 per cent throughout the pandemic and no improvement is expected with the second wave underway and domestic self-isolation requirements for those entering Nova Scotia continuing.

As a non‐share capital corporation, HIAA relies on passenger and flight activity to generate revenue needed to operate. HIAA reinvests end-of-the-year surpluses into airport operations and on‐going facility improvements. A portion of the surplus also goes toward paying rent annually to Transport Canada, as part of its long-term land lease agreement to manage the airport. Operating in a user‐pay system means when very few people are travelling, the airport generates very little revenue to support operations.

“If you were at the airport today, you’d see there are hardly any vehicles in the parking lot, very few people in the building…it’s like a ghost town” said Carter. “It is difficult to imagine any business that could remain open and operating with 90 per cent less activity than normal for months on end.”

Despite the reduction in activity, Carter said as a critical piece of transportation infrastructure, Halifax Stanfield must remain open to safely move goods, essential workers, and facilitate medevac and other important services that support Canada’s economy and recovery.

“But whether one flight lands here, or one thousand flights land here, we have substantial fixed costs associated with safely managing our airfield, terminal building and property,” she added.

As part of the response to the COVID‐19 pandemic and reduced passenger traffic, HIAA looked at every opportunity to reduce costs. The airport has consolidated operations in the terminal, closed parking lots, shut down escalators and even dimmed lights, when possible. HIAA also laid off 25 per cent of its workforce because of the pandemic’s impacts, which according to Carter, is a step they deeply regret having to take.

“Our people are a big part of the reason we are consistently recognized among the best airports of our size in the world. It has been a very difficult time for our entire team.”

It’s not just airports that have been affected. Airlines, businesses inside the terminal building, businesses on the airport property, and even supply chain partners, have all felt the effects of COVID-19’s extraordinary disruption to aviation. According to the Canadian Airports Council (CAC), tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in airport employment zones, with air sector unemployment as high as 50 per cent. The CAC expects airports will lose as much as $4.5 billion in revenue and add $2.8 billion in debt to cover operational deficits by the end of 2021.

To begin planning for what will be years of recovery efforts, HIAA assembled a Recovery Task Force led by Paul Baxter, Senior Vice President Operations & Chief Operating Officer. The Task Force’s goal was to produce a plan to help rebuild passenger confidence and manage evolving operational and human resource requirements. They looked at modelling the future to understand not only passenger recovery, but how the industry will respond to establish a safe, secure, efficient, and financially responsible post-pandemic airport operating model.

According to Baxter, three major factors were identified as the biggest obstacles to the airport’s recovery: federal and provincial border restrictions, travel advisories, and quarantine measures; the financial viability of airlines, airport businesses and airport authorities; and consumer confidence in air travel.

“We knew that when the time was right, instilling consumer confidence would be key to rebuilding passenger traffic and air service lost due to COVID-19,” said Baxter.

In June, Halifax Stanfield conducted a Passenger Expectations Survey, to understand what travellers wanted to see when they were ready to fly again. Over three-quarters of respondents unsurprisingly expected the airport to prioritize physical distancing, increased hand sanitizer, and enhanced cleaning. Eighty-six per cent of respondents said they believed HIAA would take the steps necessary to ensure the airport was a safe and healthy environment.

“It was beneficial to understand what passengers expect to see when they travel at our airport and know that the measures they wanted to see were already in place,” said Baxter. “We were very pleased that, because of these efforts, we were accredited by the Airports Council International (ACI) Airport Health Accreditation program. This program was created during the pandemic to recognize airports that are providing a safe experience for travellers by introducing recommended global health measures and industry best practices.”

Although the situation continues to be dire, airports across Canada are adapting and evolving to find innovative solutions to their current challenges. It’s expected that in the future, airport processes and infrastructure will change to increase consumer confidence by allowing for more physical distancing, fewer face-to-face interactions, touchless technology, and even permanent “health checks” for inbound and outbound passengers.

No stranger to aviation industry crises throughout her 20 plus-year tenure at HIAA, Carter says health checks could become a permanent feature of air travel, much like the security screening measures that were introduced after 9/11. In fact, the Canadian Air Transportation Security Authority (CATSA) has already implemented temperature checks at many Canadian airports, including Halifax Stanfield.

But what Halifax Stanfield is most interested in seeing introduced at all Canadian airports, said Carter, is standardized COVID-19 testing. She said four other Canadian airports, with support from their respective provinces and the federal government, are exploring using airport testing to increase public safety and in some cases, amend the 14-day isolation requirements. This is a science-based approach to support safer air travel that will bridge the period needed to effectively roll out vaccines around the world.

“We are pleased to see other airports and provinces looking for ways to safely combine testing with reduced quarantine requirements. But most importantly, we applaud the government’s decision to collect data and increase community safety by testing at airports. We believe this can be part of a layered approach to public health measures that will include a vaccine, masks, distancing, and other measures, to enable the safe restart of air ravel.”

Carter adds that HIAA is eager to support the communities it serves by assisting the Government of Nova Scotia with a COVID-19 testing pilot project at Halifax Stanfield. She said the airport has already shared a proposal with government officials outlining how airport testing could work.

“Testing at Halifax Stanfield could not only help bring back some of the air service we’ve lost that is needed by our community members, but more importantly, it’s an opportunity to collect valuable data and information about how this virus spreads and what we can do to keep our communities safe,” said Carter. “It’s an important step towards a national, harmonized approach to safely moving towards economic recovery and growth in a post-pandemic world.”

In the meantime, Carter said for the employees at Halifax Stanfield, it feels like they are on the longest layover of life. However, despite all these challenges, the airport continues to provide an essential transportation link for the safe and efficient movement of people, and goods. This purpose is extremely evident as they navigate COVID‐19, one of the most difficult situations the aviation industry has ever faced. For example, airports will play a key role in the COVID-19 vaccine deployment across the country, as our vaccines arrive by air.

“Though the immediate future remains uncertain, before COVID‐19, Halifax Stanfield had grown and established itself as an important contributor to the region, one that we have proudly served for 60 years. It’s for this reason that I’m confident we’ll get through this extremely challenging time, and be ready to serve again, when the time is right.”

by Leah Batstone