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Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra speaks in Saint John on Feb. 28, 2023. Image: Brad Perry

Federal transport minister wants more collaboration between N.B. airports

By Scott Pettigrew Mar 1, 2023 | 1:00 PM

The federal transport minister says changes to the airline passenger bill of rights will be a priority in the spring session of Parliament, following travel snafus last year.

Omar Alghabra made the comments during a speech to local business leaders hosted by the Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce on February 28.

The address, which sounded suspiciously like a stump speech, listed a number of significant investments the federal government has made to the region, including $195 million in Saint John and Rothesay in 2022.

RELATED: Read the full transcript of Alghabra’s speech

Alghabra followed his speech with an announcement of approximately $10 million for the city for investments in the remaining two phases of the Harbour Bridge Rehabilitation Project and an upgrade for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to inspect cargo arriving at Port Saint John.

Although his focus was on government investments, the question and answer session afterward was dominated by the fate of the province’s airports and the state of the airline industry, which has suffered significant service readjustments post-COVID-19.

More collaboration between regional airports

Alghabra drew smiles when he answered a simple “yes” to the question of Transport Canada’s support of a  collaborative New Brunswick aviation strategy between Fredericton, Saint John, and Moncton airport authorities.

When asked what measures he’s taking to give the Canadian Transportation Agency additional strength to enforce penalties and provide compensation to passengers who are impacted by travel service disruptions, Alghabra claimed the issue would be addressed in Parliament soon.

He said the government will table this spring a new proposal to overhaul and strengthen the Passenger Bill of Rights “to ensure that airlines are encouraged to uphold customers’ rights and incentivize them to deal with complaints a lot faster than having customers go to the Canadian Transportation Agency.”

He said some of last year’s travel woes can be attributed to the imbalance between the sudden surge in demand for flights following COVID-19 and the airline industry scrambling to all the people laid off during the pandemic. He added that last year’s experiences revealed vulnerabilities in the system.

“We are, as a government and as Transport Canada, working on fundamentally overhauling the system, including overhauling the Passenger Bill of Rights, including providing the Canadian Transportation Agency with more tools, authorities and powers, so they are able to investigate and ensure that customer’s rights are protected.”

The question comes as Toronto’s Pearson Airport announced it was limiting the number of flights during peaks such as the upcoming March break travel season.

When asked about the return to normal airport service by major carriers, the minister said that “while parts of the country are experiencing significant return to pre-pandemic travel volumes, many in the regional airports have not yet gotten there. And we’re seeing airlines focus on the busiest routes rather than the regional routes and this is something that is a concern of mine. In every meeting I have with major airlines I stress the importance of the return to connectivity for many regional communities that their economies depend on, and essential travel depend on.”

Regional connectivity still weak

Alghabra also said pandemic loans to airlines did have conditions to maintain regional connectivity.

“And that’s why many airports had a regularly scheduled flight and perhaps not the same scheduled flights that they had pre-pandemic, they had a minimum one or two a week… it’s because we requested it as part of the package that we provided to airlines.”

“Air Canada has paid back its loans and right now they don’t have an obligation. So, right now we are looking at what else can we do as a government,” including a recent meeting with New Brunswick’s Transport Minister Jeff Carr about the issue.

Alghabra said they discussed what the government can do to create incentives or a “welcoming environment” for airlines to come to regional airports.

He acknowledged that the airline sector is going through a challenging period from both a reputational and operational standpoint, but that he’s seeing a “light at the end of the tunnel” which is a lot more competition than has been seen in the space in a while, with existing airlines reinvesting and new entrants making their way into the market like Jetlines Canada.

When asked if airport rents could be lowered, or be completely reinvested back into airports, rather than only 60 percent of the money, Alghabra noted that last fall’s Supply Chain Task Force report recommended that half of airport rent payments be waived short-term, to reserve that money for reinvestment in infrastructure.

He agreed that airports didn’t make much money during COVID due to travel restrictions, and that the government was considering this recommendation.

He acknowledged that having a reliable, functioning airport system is fundamental for economic stability and supply chain strength.

Alex Graham is a reporter with Huddle, an Acadia Broadcasting content partner.


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