It’s noon on a weekday in the departures area. The only sound is the ’80s music overhead. There are about a dozen people standing around — including airline staff.
This is the new normal for the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. Normally, more than 6,000 people would get on outbound planes on any given day.
In the past two weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has dropped that to fewer than 150, according to the Winnipeg Airports Authority.
“It’s a ghost town,” said Jeff Case, an elevator consultant who was flying back to Calgary on Tuesday.
Case was in Winnipeg for a work project, and is usually here once a month. Now, the pandemic is forcing his company to space that out, and he plans to travel only once every few months.
“It’s a very eerie feeling, where there were lots of people always around in lineups and waits, and now there’s nothing,” said Case, before heading to the virtually empty security area.
Flights cancelled, times changing
The province has strongly advised against all non-essential travel, but people are still flying through this airport every day for work or other urgent matters.
Megan Fournier is a nurse who frequently travels to northern Manitoba from southern Ontario. She said she’s not anxious or nervous about flying — but actually getting on the flight is another story.
“They’re constantly being cancelled and the times are constantly changing. So it’s difficult,” she said.
“I think my flight changed about five times on the way here.”
Fournier said her employer is trying to cut down on how often she and other nurses travel. When she does, she says people are spaced out on the plane. She also washes her hands frequently and doesn’t touch her face.
“Just be responsible in your everyday life, as far as touching things and washing your hands and making sure that you’re keeping a good distance from people,” said Fournier.
A ‘stark reminder’ of pandemic
The Winnipeg Airports Authority has added new measures to keep people safe. Tall signs advising people to stay two metres away from others are sprinkled around the arrivals and departures areas.
Even the iconic “Hug Rug,” where arriving passengers are often greeted by friends and family, has been replaced with a sign encouraging physical distancing.
But there are fewer and fewer people at the airport who need the reminders. Airports authority CEO Barry Rempel says the number of flights is down 97 per cent from this time last year. There are several planes parked at the airport, just because the airlines aren’t using them.
“The last time I truly felt like this — you know, looking around the airfield — was just after 9/11,” said Rempel. “As an aviation guy, it’s a really, really heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach.”
The airport is still operating, but balancing the books is a challenge. Rempel said the WAA is trying to be transparent with its staff about the future, but it’s not clear what that will look like.
“We couldn’t possibly balance it, even if we laid off all of our staff,” said Rempel.
“What we’re trying to determine now as an employer ourselves is, what do we look like in 2021? Then, how can we work with government to make sure that we have those people and we retain those skills for the long-term?”
There are still cargo flights coming in and going out, but Rempel says the pandemic has virtually wiped out regular passenger travel.
“It’s just a very stark reminder when you walk through the building of what an impact this particular virus has had on our community’s connectivity.”
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