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Air transport industry gathers in person for ATAC 2021, ‘ready to go’

By Dayna Fedy-MacDonald | November 22, 2021

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 22 seconds.

While this year’s Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) conference was a bit smaller than normal, due to social distancing requirements, the industry concerns were just as loud. The message that association president John McKenna expressed during the three-day conference — held Nov. 16 to 18 in Montreal — was, “The industry is ready to go.”

With a number of travel-related restrictions still in place, due to Covid-19, McKenna said the industry is hungry for normalcy. “We’re ready to go, and the government is the one that’s slowing us down. . . . We’re ramping up to be able to serve Canadians in the best capacity possible.”

Currently, there are still PCR test requirements in place for travelers entering or returning to Canada. As well, international flights are only permitted to land at a handful of Canadian airports currently.

Part of the show floor at the 2021 Air Transport Association of Canada conference in Montreal. Dayna Fedy Photo

McKenna seemed cautiously optimistic about working with Canada’s new Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, to work through industry issues.

“He can’t be worse than the last guy,” said McKenna in an interview with Skies.

“Minister Alghabra seems to be open to listening to what we have to say. He seems interested. He seems to be ready to challenge the department. The previous [Transport Minister] didn’t do any of those things.”

One of the key concerns voiced by this year’s ATAC industry partners and exhibitors is that the kind of market they’re going to be serving is still unclear. “And it’s the same concern as their carriers,” said McKenna. “We don’t know what the demand for air travel is going to be once Covid is settled. . . Clearly less business travel, and business travel accounts for about 60 percent of the revenues of any airline.”

With individuals and companies becoming more comfortable with using Zoom, or other video communications platforms, business travel for meetings is declining. But McKenna says you can’t eliminate either option.

“You don’t want to eliminate the in-person meetings because those are important to develop relationships. But, then again, companies are conscious of their expenses,” and video communications platforms save both time and money.

Aside from unknown travel demand, the industry’s labor shortage – which McKenna said was the biggest concern before Covid — has now become an even bigger concern, thanks to the pandemic.

“We lost a lot of people during Covid,” said McKenna. “Some people just walked away from our industry . . . we lost a lot of junior people who were just coming into this industry, who said, ‘I’m going to go somewhere else.’ And then we lost a lot of people at the high end” who saw the pandemic as the right time to retire early.

Losing personnel at both the bottom and top of the chain — at virtually the same time —creates a significant knowledge gap, too.

The final area of concern that McKenna, and industry partners, addressed during this year’s ATAC conference is, of course, the supply chain issues. While the supply chain topic was “present in all discussions,” it’s something the association needs to re-address immediately following the conference “to figure out how we’re going to deal with it,” said McKenna.

Air Transport Association of Canada president John McKenna walks the tradeshow floor at the organization’s annual conference in Vancouver, B.C. This year, 52 companies exhibited products and services geared toward the air transport industry. Lisa Gordon Photo
Air Transport Association of Canada president John McKenna walks the tradeshow floor at the organization’s 2016 conference in Vancouver. Lisa Gordon Photo

Also next on the association’s to-do list is, as always, planning ahead.

“ATAC has a very dynamic, strategic planning working group which looks at where we want this association to be in five years, four years, three years, etc.,” he added. “The external side of it is that we’re a regulatory watchdog. We have to make sure that what’s coming down the pipe is not something that is going to be harmful to industry. So, we look forward to getting back to that mode.

“The government has been so on top of Covid all the time that we don’t know how quickly they’re going to snap out of that, or how quickly they’re going to start imposing all kinds of regulations,” continued McKenna. “So we’re concerned.”

On a positive note, while in-person conferences and events were put on hold in 2020, McKenna said he was thrilled to see people happy to be working together face-to-face again.

“We so needed to meet, and talk, and have dialogue again,” he added. “Because when you’re on a Zoom meeting, there’s something that doesn’t pass… the energy is not there. The dynamics of this kind of in-person meeting are very important to us.”

With a social distancing “cap” placed on this year’s ATAC conference, some 300 Canadian commercial aviation stakeholders and over 40 exhibitors were present. Next year’s ATAC conference is set to be held in Vancouver; industry partners and exhibitors look forward to gathering in a (hopefully) less restricted setting in 2022.

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