The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on the airline industry: international and domestic air travels are reduced to the minimum, major airports are so empty that they feel like ghost towns, and runways turn into parking lots to place idled planes.
Grounding nearly all aircraft and canceling flights, airline companies worldwide filed for bankruptcy or cried for government bailouts. Airbus even estimated that the industry won’t recover in five years.
Not only big airlines but regional and medium-to-small airlines face similar struggles or even worse. To have a holistic understanding of Canada’s airline industry during the pandemic, this project tracked movements of over 800 planes owned by 13 Canadian operators of various sizes from February to mid-May.
The lockdown put spring break to a sudden stop
During the span of two and a half months, the daily amount of flights operated by Canadian airlines had experienced a roller-coaster ride: a steady increase to a sharp decline.
March is one of the busiest seasons of air travel as thousands of Canadian families escape to the south for sunshine and the beach for spring break. Each year, airlines start to schedule more flights between Canada and vacation destinations in late February. The year 2020 was no different even though the coronavirus had been ravaging several countries for months until then.
On March 14, though Ottawa warned Canadians to avoid non-essential travels the day before, Canadian airlines arranged 1,042 passenger carriers flying out of Canada, reaching their highest number in three and a half months.
Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and the Canadian government released its travel restrictions, Canadian airlines started to reduce international and domestic flights drastically.
From mid-March to the end of the month, daily flights of these airlines dropped by nearly 80 per cent. The declines were so sudden and so steep that airports were packed with homecoming snowbirds.
Declines in all major airports in Canada
Statistics on Canada’s major airports in March 2020, the latest released by the Statistic Canada, showed that plane landings and take-offs declined by 31.6 per cent, compared to the same time last year. The drop was more significant during the second half of March as travel restrictions were in place to combat the pandemic.
The decline has been more substantial — more than 80 per cent in Canada’s major airports — since mid-April as airlines temporarily suspended flight to the U.S., the top international destination of air travel in Canada.
Toronto Pearson International Airport, the country’s busiest airport, is now more like a quiet parking lot for planes instead of a bustling hub packed with travelers. In 2019, the airport had nearly 600 flights taking off in a day. Since early March 2020, around 260 take off from Pearson in a day.
The runways are motionless, skies have largely cleared, and the terminals have turned into ghost towns. Staff at Pearson said that they were now seeing approximately 5000 passengers comparing to 130,000 in the old days. Halifax Stanfield International Airport, the busiest air hub in Atlantic Canada, sees no more than 300 passengers a day.
Not every airline has a sharp decrease
Before the pandemic, big commercial airlines had to keep 80 per cent of their fleets in the air to make profits and leave the rest on the ground for maintenance. COVID-19 reverses this by putting more than 80 per cent of Air Canada and WestJet aircraft to a halt.
Situations are worse for Air Transat and Porter: businesses of the two are at a complete standstill. Porter Airlines, a regional company connecting destinations in eastern Canada and several metropolitans in the States, had to suspend all its flights when the pandemic had just begun. It just announced an extended suspension to the end of June.
However, not every company can reduce its service and cut off capacity in the face of the reduction of passengers. Operators serving northern Canada and connecting indigenous communities have managed normal status, or even have arranged more flights. Canadian North, for example, on April 14, kept 13 fleets out of its total 15 in the air, making 108 trips in Northern Canada. Air Canada flew only 16 per cent of its aircraft on the same day.
There are over 100 inaccessible communities in remote Canada and air travel is the only means of transportation to those regions. Suspending air services means cutting off supplies and isolating them completely.
However, keeping the status quo does not mean northern airlines are free from financial struggles. In fact, Canadian North, a company flying passenger carriers and freights to the Northwest Territories, Nunavik and Nunavut, expressed concerns around cutting off some services due to financial constraints to the Nunavut government.
Airline services to the north have become more crucial during the pandemic: limited air services would mean fewer medical supplies and longer waiting time to transport medial workers and lab samples.
Those companies heavily rely on government fundings to keep business afloat: In mid-April, the federal government allocated $17.3 million to northern airlines: $3.6 million to Yukon, $5 million to Nunavut and 8.7 to the NWT. Northern governments pay millions of dollars a week to airlines to keep their services.
However, Ottawa seemingly favors the country’s largest corporates in terms of relief measures, leaving smaller and regional flight companies fearing being left out.
Technical notes: Aircraft movement data for this project is scrapped from flightradar24. The database on airports and locations is from openflights. A scraper was built to obtain data for this project, and you can find it at my Github, as well as a detailed analysis.