Don Martin: Airlines can't defy the gravity of this pandemic without a government lift
NANAIMO, B.C. -- Long before takeoff you see and feel the airline-jolting turbulence kicked up by COVID-19.
Flying into the second wave is an eerie and unsustainable combination of dreamy passenger conditions inside a daily nightmare for airlines now turning to the federal government for financial lift.
Take my flight to Nanaimo this week, a trip greeted with dismay and protests from family and friends.
It started at a usually jammed Ottawa terminal parking garage where I had the luxury of ignoring a spot two rows from the entrance to claim one just two spots from the door.
That was just the disorientating start to a strange new experience for someone who has been flying on mostly-packed planes for more than 50 years.
Next stop, an empty terminal. I mean that literally, not figuratively. In Canada’s sixth busiest airport, there were less than 40 people in the cavernous departure area at 7 a.m. on a normally busy weekday.
The flight departure board listed just 11 flights for the entire day. Not one flight was heading outside Canada. Every single one was on time because, having surplus planes stacked up around the gates, means there’s no need to wait for turnaround planes.
The big bonus for that: I had one person ahead of me in line for the temperature check and baggage scan.
The only change at security, beyond the shuffling lineup of passengers, was the friendly and helpful staff. Gone were the sometimes curt and cranky commands to take off belts and haul out laptops. It took four minutes to clear.
The departure lounges are an even more ominous indicator for airports needing those formerly-lucrative retail dollars to keep the lights on.
The outer wings were deserted while the Starbucks, Tim Hortons and my favorite pub are closed. The Maple Leaf Lounge, not that this back-of-the-plane passenger qualifies for better-class entry, was dark.
The actual flying part of the process is a breeze. Boarding started on time, the doors closed early with 60 passengers on a plane configured for more than 150 (but the flight attendant told me her next flight was packed) and we were in the air three minutes before the scheduled departure time with the middle seat mercifully empty.
They hand out a goodie bag, more like a pandemic survival kit, which has water, a mask, sanitizer, earplugs and the always-awful pretzels.
If it weren’t for the uncomfortable N-95 mask strapped on for six hours, this would’ve been my best-ever airborne experience.
And yet, it was the first time I’ve felt apprehension and sensed nervousness all around me.
Every cough attracted stares from nearby passengers. Sneezes had to be suppressed. Sniffles silently dealt dispatched.
And no wonder. While every cleaning and distancing precaution is being taken, there’s still a sobering list of 41 domestic flights in the last two weeks with alerts for passengers who sat near someone who tested positive.
Unknown is how many of the surrounding passengers, if any, caught the virus while on board.
And so we’re confronted by a business model which cannot keep planes in the air while hundreds of thousands of pre-pandemic passengers keep themselves grounded.
My source in Transport Canada says speculation about incoming federal relief is mostly accurate with forgivable loans and potential breaks in landing fees.
But the optics are tricky with higher priorities on the government’s radar than bailing out companies which stacked and packed passengers profitably for many years.
It needs to be sold as a hand-up, not a handout, particularly to keep routes into Atlantic Canada on standby until protectionist premiers pop that four-province bubble.
After flying across Canada, it’s clear the current pandemic flight path cannot be sustained until travel returns to normal sometime in 2021.
Airlines can’t defy the gravity of the situation with parked fleets, half-empty planes and deserted terminals.
That, unfortunately, is the plane truth.