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On March 23, Sunwing Airlines operated its final repatriation flights to bring Canadians home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In total, the Toronto-based tour company has operated almost 400 flights since March 16 – at a cost of more than $26 million – to bring citizens and permanent residents back to Canada.
Sunwing said on March 22 that it had repatriated 60,000 Canadians as of that date. That number included more than 3,000 stranded customers of other airlines who were offered free seats, subject to availability, on return Sunwing flights.
With its repatriation efforts complete, Sunwing will temporarily halt all flights. The airline said it will be laying off its approximately 470 pilots, as well as cabin crew.
While the frenetic repatriation activity will cease on March 24, the airline began making plans to store its fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft several days earlier.
At the Region of Waterloo International Airport (CYKF) in Breslau, Ont., the phone began to ring.
“Sunwing reached out to us and asked for parking opportunities,” said airport general manager Chris Wood. “We quickly evaluated what we could do for them.”
At about the same time, operations at Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC) had been temporarily suspended following Ontario’s declaration of a state of emergency on March 17. The school has cancelled operations until April 3, with further details to come.
“We thought we’d have an extra runway that wouldn’t be needed much over the next while,” said Wood, whose staff drew up contingency plans to close Runway 14/32 at Waterloo and turn it into an aircraft parking lot. “The first Sunwing plane arrived on Saturday night (March 21). There are 15 here as of today (March 23). I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
Right now, Waterloo is only hosting Sunwing aircraft, although Wood said he has reached out to other carriers.
“We have spaced them out pretty good but there is room for a lot more. If we pack them in tip to tip, we can take up to 80 aircraft.”
He said the Greater Toronto Airports Authority also reached out through the Southern Ontario Airport Network to ask regional airports to come forward if they could provide parking.
“We’re trying to answer the call and help where we can,” said Wood. “This isn’t the way I envisioned becoming a hub airport. A couple of months ago, airlines were talking about record loads. It’s scary. It’s surreal.”
For airports, there is widespread concern about lost revenue.
“We have the luxury of having municipal government support here, whereas other airports need to find corresponding cuts,” explained Wood. “There is talk of cutting capital projects, laying off staff, and some airports are predicting an 80 per cent revenue loss.”
At Waterloo, operations staff are still on site although procedures have been modified and social distancing is being practised. Administration staff, except for Wood, are working from home.
He said Sunwing – which normally operates weekly seasonal flights from Waterloo to Cancun, Mexico and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic – has put maintenance staff at the airport to care for its fleet of parked airliners.
“They are happy everything is in one spot and close enough to their maintenance base in Toronto. We’ve programmed their security passes to open our doors and they’re here now and working around the clock.”
Wood said that while the projected loss for Canadian airports is in the $2 billion range, the anticipated losses incurred by airlines are expected to be “well north of that.”
That’s why the airport is glad to help out where it can.
“We have to support our airlines and we’ll do whatever it takes to help them get through this,” concluded Wood. “We’re all in this together and we need each other.”