By RENE J. ROY
STEPHENVILLE – Deer Lake Regional Airport has been the ‘Go To’ destination for a number of years for anyone wishing to fly in and out of the West coast. The next nearest airport is in Gander, meaning a further three hours on the Trans Canada Highway.
For West coast residents, driving up the highway to Deer Lake is a shorter commute, but using that airport can prove inconvenient thanks to the departure and arrival times. With flights departing as early as 7 a.m. or arriving as late as midnight, driving into the wee hours is not always the best option, especially when combined with poor weather conditions.
Stephenville Airport is a much better option for those who live in the Bay St. George area, not to mention people further down the Southwest coast in Port aux Basques or the Codroy Valley. The facility has one of the largest and best landing strips in the Atlantic Canada, but for some reason, it’s proven hard to get an airline to put it to use even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Airport Manager Lew Short says the Stephenville airport has a 10,000 by 200-foot runway, with a high payload rating of 12+ and is able to accommodate any aircraft that flies.
Despite that, three airlines have decided not to provide air service to Stephenville. Sunwing, PAL and Porter have all cancelled plans to land at the airport. Stephenville Mayor Tom Rose says COVID has shaken up the industry.
“There’s also no question about it. Over the last decade, Stephenville certainly has not had a lot of airline service. About 50,000 people from our cachement area fly out of Deer Lake – not because they want to, but because they have to.”
“But COVID has made cargo king again,” Rose points out. “We believe that this massive runway and our tarmacs and ramps are more valuable now than they have ever been.”
Prior to COVID, PAL had a scheduled stop in Stephenville, but it was only two days per week, which is hardly ideal for interprovincial travellers who often found themselves stranded in another region for a day or three before a return flight was scheduled or facing a longer drive to get home.
“When they pulled out, I felt that it was a schedule that was built with a recipe for failure,” says Rose. “If you were flying to St. John’s for a medical appointment on Monday, and you were planning on coming back Wednesday, but you couldn’t get back until Friday, well people wouldn’t book it.”
With the withdrawal of PAL, the airport was left with Sunwing, which is really just a seasonal discount carrier.
Rose continues, “Sunwing provided just ten flights a year – not a whole lot of flights, but because of the challenges of flying right now, they decided that they wouldn’t return to Newfoundland for this fiscal year.”
In fact, Sunwing withdrew flights from all airports in Newfoundland not just Stephenville. St. John’s was also left in the lurch.
“That decision was made strictly due to the COVID pandemic,” confirms Short.
“Porter had reduced their schedule by 35 per cent across the board – across Canada. They had originally planned to fly here, but again, it was because of COVID that they eventually decided not to come here.”
Despite high passenger load numbers in the 90 per cent range, the three airlines felt there was no alternative shut down service to the Stephenville airport.
“But we believe, coming out of COVID, with the new management with the Winnipeg Airport Services Corporation (WASCO), and with Lew becoming the new manager, we are working feverishly at this point and time. We anticipate announcements for new airline service that will be more service than we’ve ever had before,” teases Rose.
The mayor declined to elaborate further but hopes to provide more details in the near future.
“So even though there’s a bit of a lull in the business, we feel we will come out of the gate, out of COVID, bigger stronger with more airlines, and more economics at the Stephenville Airport.”
“I believe the market is here,” agrees Short. “What’s required is that we need a consistent daily service. What I mean by that is, if I want to go to St. John’s on Sunday and come back on Monday, we need the ability to do that. And when you’re dealing with a service thats intermittent and erratic, then you cannot establish a market in that environment.”
“Within two years, I truly believe that you will be able to get daily flights out of Stephenville (to) pretty much anywhere in the world,” says the mayor.
Despite losing these passenger flights, Short and Rose both point out that thanks to alternate revenue streams generated by the facilities, such as leasing of rental space, there is still income at the airport, but admit they would still love to have passenger flights landing.
Says Rose, “This airport is in a prime location for textile businesses to go across the North Atlantic. It’s got the best ascent and descent profiles to the North Atlantic track, the best weather record in the province. So we need the Federal Government on our side. We need a stronger voice from our MP to get things solved. We need all levels helping.”