Coronavirus: With travel industry hobbled, flights few at London International Airport

At this time of the year, London’s International Airport would have 40 scheduled commercial flights coming and going every day.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, though, that figure is down to as few as five a day, and even then, the planes are “virtually empty,” says airport CEO, Mike Seabrook.

“Our passenger traffic is about 10-15 per cent of what it normally is,” Seabrook said in an interview Friday with Global News Radio 980 CFPL’s Devon Peacock.

Like the rest of the travel industry, airports have been reeling from the pandemic as borders stay closed and planes remain grounded.

For London International, it’s a particularly hard pill to swallow.

The airport saw record-breaking passenger traffic in 2019, up 27 per cent from a record-breaking 2018,, and was planning on adding more routes this year.

“There’s just nobody travelling right now for good reason,” Seabrook says, “and for those who are, there’s been some repatriation flights and people returning home, but there’s very few people who are going anywhere any more.”

With travel restrictions in place and Canadians following government orders to self-isolate, airlines like Air Canada and WestJet have either suspended or cancelled their scheduled international flights and have drastically reduced domestic capacity.

Asked about the possibility the number of arriving and departing flights could hit zero in the near future, Seabrook said it could happen, but noted he was only speculating.

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“With the airlines, it doesn’t make sense to operate an aircraft with so few people on it. And if nobody is travelling, I think that’s inevitable,” he said.

“You know, maybe if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and in two and three and four weeks there’s some return to something closer to normal, they may hang on there and then pick it up. It’s not easy to shut down an airline.”

On top of scaling back flights, both Air Canada and WestJet have also scaled back their workforces due to the pandemic.

Air Canada is temporarily laying off more than 5,100 of its flight attendants, and up to 600 of its more than 4,400 pilots will go on unpaid leave in the coming months, according to the head of the Air Canada Pilots Association, who says the precise number of positions that have been immediately affected remains unclear.

Meanwhile, roughly half of WestJet’s 14,000 employees, some 6,900 people, are leaving the company, some temporarily, due to the pandemic, the airline says.

Its budget subsidiary Swoop, which also operates out of London’s airport, is not included in the figures, which also counts early retirements and both voluntary and involuntary layoffs.

With flights and passengers few and far between, the airport has been reduced to a skeleton crew of essential workers who come in to maintain and operate the facility as required, Seabrook said.

“There’s some regulatory things that we have to do in terms of maintaining it,” Seabrook says. “So we’ve sent every non-essential home… We still have medivacs, we still have some freight operations that that come and go.

“The airport will be always be open because there are requirements for for non-passenger services that come and go there.”

On the possibility of layoffs like those seen elsewhere in the travel industry, Seabrook says it really depends on how long the pandemic, and its economic fallout, lasts.

Estimates have pegged potential global passenger revenue losses this year of $252 billion, according to the Air Transport Association — a drop of 44 per cent from 2019.

“If you can imagine London’s problem worldwide… there’s airports like Toronto Pearson, Vancouver, Calgary, and Montreal, the four big ones in Canada, that have similar circumstances occurring. And the effects to them are significant.”

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