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Sault airport surviving on reserves

Recovery plan contingent on control of pandemic and consumer confidence in safety of flight, says airport president, CEO
20200530-SSM Airport summer stock-DT-02
Sault Ste. Marie Airport. Darren Taylor/SooToday

Airport president and CEO says a Nav Canada scale back at the airport might make things a bit more difficult but won't negatively impact air traffic.

As reported earlier by SooToday, Nav Canada is considering scaling back its presence at the airport, said Terry Bos, Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corporation's president and CEO.

“Having a tower allows you to have more movements than if we only had an advisory service, so it is important for the amount of movements that we have, especially for the Sault College training movements. But it doesn’t affect the actual airport itself. The airport is separate from Nav Canada so the airport can still stay open and function.”

Nav Canada provides aeronautical services throughout Canada. 

“Here in Sault Ste Marie we have what’s called a control tower, which means the people up in our tower control the aircraft in our zone and they tell them where to go, when to go and when to land,” Bos said, “If you don’t have a control tower you use an advisory service, which is a service that provides advice to pilots and tells them what to watch out for.”

Bos compares the two to driving up to a traffic light. “You see green, yellow, or red lights and know whether to go or stop. If you pull up to a yield sign, it’s up to you whether you go or not, which is like an advisory service,” he said. 

“The airport will stay open regardless of what Nav Canada’s decision is. We’ve made a really strong case to keep the control tower. Sault College has major expansion plans that more than justify the need for a tower here. Although we have to go through the process, we think we’ve provided input that justifies maintaining the tower,” he said.

A bigger problem than Nav Canada possibly scaling back its operations is declining usage due to COVID-19, Bos said.

With numbers being at an all-time low over the past year due to travel restrictions, the business of the Sault Ste. Marie Airport is seemingly on thin ice.

In January, passenger traffic was down 89.3 per cent from the previous year and down 89.8 per cent for the fiscal year between April 2020 and January 2021, a news release from earlier this month reads. 

But Terry Bos, the Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corporation's president and CEO says that at this point in time, the closure of the airport is not something that is imminent. 

“We’ve built up a good reserve fund over our 20 years of operation,” Bos said. “We have a very prudent board of directors and management staff so we’ve built up what I would call a ‘rainy day reserve’. We’ve built one both for our operating side of the house as well as our capital side. I would not say we’re in danger of closing but we are certainly feeling a major financial impact from the pandemic.” 

Bos says the airport has a recovery plan, but that it’s very much contingent on the future of the pandemic and when travellers decide to start flying again. 

“There’s not a lot we can control, unfortunately, we’re at the whim of passengers returning to the air which is in the hands of the federal government right now, with regards to where they see things going and allowing more travel to happen,” he said. “Unfortunately there’s been a lot of travel shaming going on lately, which I think is somewhat unwarranted. There’s a lot of safety that’s been put into the way the airports operate. Limiting travel to international destinations is understandable, and certainly, we don’t want it (COVID-19) imported into the country, but domestic travel, which is the majority of our travel, has been shown to be pretty safe.”

“I think once the vaccines start rolling out and people start to feel a little more comfortable that the vaccines are doing what they’re supposed to do then hopefully there will be a rebound in the market. We’ll see where things go, but the rebound may not happen as quickly as people are hoping it to be,” he said. 

Because the Sault Ste. Marie Airport is unique in that it is the only smaller airport not tied to any level of government, it makes things a little more difficult. But Bos is making sure to stay in contact with other similar-sized airports to stay up to date on what everyone else’s thoughts are. “I sit in more Zoom meetings than I thought I’d ever take part in,” he joked.  

Personally, for Bos, times have been especially hard due to reducing staffing because of the pandemic. 

“We’ve done a number of reductions to our staffing level which always hurts, especially when you’re the one who has to do it. Our management team has been working on reduced wages and reduced hours of work for seven or eight months now,” he said. 

But Bos is encouraged by recent discussions he’s had regarding regional air transportation initiatives as well as Air Canada’s recent performance results, and he hopes that something is going to flow from there in the next several weeks if there’s money put in the budget. 

“I’d like to say there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and our efforts in lobbying the government to come to our aid are going to be fruitful. It’s certainly been a tough battle and we’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions,” Bos said. “We’re not in the recovery stage yet and I don’t think our industry is going to be in the recovery stage until sometime this fall when vaccines are fully out there. It will take some time.”