The province says it wants to grow air passenger service in the province, without closing of any of its airports. That's according to the government's new five-year air sector strategy, released on Thursday.
While an amalgamation of some of the province's airports has been cited as a way to increase the number of flights and destinations offered by airlines, the province said its plan is to increase service without those closures.
"This strategy provides us with a roadmap for keeping our strategic aviation assets viable and encouraging growth in a meaningful and sustainable way," Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Jill Green said in a statement posted on the province's website.
Premier Blaine Higgs singled out airports as a focus in his throne speech following the 2020 election.
The speech noted that the PCs plan to "ask the fundamental question about our airports," facilities that have been hobbled by the pandemic but are vital to economic growth.
Duncan Dee, former chief operating officer of Air Canada and a member of the 2016 Canada Transportation Act review panel, said during the first summer of the pandemic that, "given the significant reduction in traffic, it may well serve that part of the province, at least as a start, to consider consolidating Fredericton airport."
He said at the time the most obvious choice would be to look at why there is an airport in Saint John and in Fredericton when they are only an hour apart from each other.
The airports in Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John are owned by Transport Canada, not by the provincial government.
Risks of new airport outweigh benefits
The risks of building a new centralized southern airport outweigh the potential benefits, according to a study cited in the new strategy.
The report said a new airport may have increased the flight options available to New Brunswickers.
But it cited the cost, construction time and uncertainty of flight options at a new airport as reasons to hold off on building one.
"Due to substantial levels of required capital investment, commercial uncertainty and associated risks, scenarios with a new airport build and repurposing current airports are not recommended," said the report.
The CEOs at two of the province's larger airports are applauding the province's move.
Johanne Gallant, CEO of the Fredericton airport, said she's happy to see talk of closing or amalgamating airports has gone by the wayside.
"We're serving our city quite well with the existing service," said Gallant.
"We felt strongly that the [airport] would keep growing. We've invested in this terminal building, we've done an expansion, and we're very pleased with the results."
Sandy Ross, CEO of the Saint John airport, is also happy to see the talk of closures brought to an end.
He said while some may have thought consolidating airports may have led to more options, the study commissioned by the province tells a different story.
"Research indicated that the net passenger gain to the province as a function of [one airport] was going to be limited, and that it probably would not have generated much more in the way of root or carrier diversity than you see expressed now," said Ross.
"It would have been an incredibly expensive and time consuming exercise … From the data points that I saw, the numbers just didn't support the proposition."
Development of new routes
The province has committed $4 million to help develop new routes through a new program called the Air Service Development Fund pilot project.
The strategy says this pilot will take the form of a shared risk incentive program for airlines to add new routes.
"Such incentives, usually in the form of cost rebates or marketing support, demonstrate that all community stakeholders will support additional future air service," said the report.
These routes would be decided on collectively between the airports through an air services committee.
Ross admits that $4 million isn't a lot of money when it comes to the airline industry, where aircraft can cost tens of millions of dollars.
But he said the point of the money isn't entirely to fund new routes, it's to help make the business case to potential airlines.
"What you're looking for is to be able to have enough that kind of moves the proposition up from risky to less risky, or from marginally profitable to profitable," said Ross.
"You're not trying to cover the whole spread. You're just trying to have enough to make a difference in the math of the business case. So in that case, $4 million might be enough. We'll have to wait and see."
Ross also said other Atlantic Canadian provinces, like Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, have already spent more money on their air sector strategies.
This leaves New Brunswick playing catch-up, so he hopes this isn't the end of the funding for the province's air sector.
Looking toward summer
As the days get warmer and summer approaches, airports in the province appear to be in good shape when it comes to business.
Gallant says the Fredericton airport is seeing an increase in passengers.
"[We're] very pleased to see the uptick on travel, especially when it comes to leisure," said Gallant.
"We're in recovery mode and we can see it in the parking lot, and we see it within the terminal. So this is definitely good news for the year."
The good news continues at the Saint John airport.
"We've got more passengers now coming than we had originally anticipated, and we have more seats on flights than we had anticipated," said Ross.