Air Canada has confirmed it will be resuming scheduled flights out of Smithers Oct. 1 and has updated its booking system to reflect the new times and fares.
The return of the airline is on a reduced basis with only four flights per week, Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Arrival from Vancouver is scheduled for 14:52 and departure at 15:30.
The company is also reducing passenger capacity per flight by going back to the old 54-seat Dash 8-300 aircraft they used prior to May 2019 when they switched to the longer 78-seat Dash 8-Q400.
A media spokesperson said travel restrictions continue to impact demand significantly.
Air Canada suspended all their flights into YYD mid-March because of the coronavirus. The suspension applied to both incoming and outgoing flights.
Air Canada redirected all passengers through the Northwest Regional Airport in Terrace (YXT).
However, the airline was supposed to resume their flights into YYD several times this summer, then postponed their return.
Earlier this summer, Air Canada told The Interior News the delay was caused by lack of demand.
“It’s a Catch-22 — Air Canada isn’t seeing flights being booked out of Smithers, which is one of the delays, but the community is hesitant to book flights out of Smithers as they are not assured the flights will resume,” said Jill Barrowman, temporary executive director of the Smithers District Chamber of Commerce.
Last week the frustration came to a head as local organizations with the Town of Smithers to encourage Air Canada to return.
The Chamber was part of a meeting with MP Taylor Bachrach to share information and discuss next steps. Letters were written to Air Canada urging them to return to Smithers. The Smithers Chamber and Tourism Smithers also sent letters to the Town of Smithers last week asking Council to please work with the airlines, especially Air Canada, to restore service.
The Town’s new community economic development coordinator Rebecca Morris said she has been working with the airline since she started in mid-July and finally got confirmation yesterday (Sept. 16). The booking system was updated as of Wednesday night.
MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley Taylor Bachrach had also urged Air Canada to resume scheduled flights at YYD as soon as possible.
In a letter to Air Canada CEO Calvin Rovinescu dated Sept. 15, Bachrach outlined several concerns that he has been hearing from residents and stakeholders over the past months.
“The lack of scheduled flights severely hampers the COVID-19 economic recovery — not only in Smithers, but in all neighbouring communities that the airport services,” wrote Bachrach. “With no consumer confidence that flights will actually resume when Air Canada states they will, residents do not want to book flights, leading to low booking rates, which, in turn, increases the chances that Air Canada will further delay resumption of service. It’s a self- perpetuating cycle. Residents and businesses fear the airport could lose its scheduled Air Canada service altogether as a result of this interruption.”
He confirmed the news that Air Canada will resume flights on his Facebook page late on Wednesday.
“Thank you to all of the community leaders who pushed to make this possible. I’ll continue to work towards getting a similar commitment for Sandspit,” he wrote.
TheChamber, TourismSmithers and the Town sent out a survey earlier this month to help them understand how the community feltabout travel in and out of the Smithers Regional Airport during the Covid-19 pandemic and 241 people responded to the survey.
One of the questions asked was: “During the pandemic, have you purchased flights to/from Smithers Regional Airport (YYD)?
A majority of people said they are waiting until service has fully resumed in Smithers before booking any flights while 25 per cent booked through YXT and just under five per cent booked through Prince George.
Another question asked how people are being impacted by the lack of flights to Smithers and most people said it was inconvenient while others said it has made them unable to see family and friends. Just over 10 per cent said the lack of flights was impacting their business, but not all respondents would have been business owners.
“People are free to travel within their province and country and Smithers is the perfect getaway location with wonderful accommodation and recreational options,” added Barrowman.
“The lack of visitors not only affects the tourism providers, but also [other] businesses too, whether it be retail, restaurants, breweries, etc. I think the results of the survey speak for themselves too. But not only has the flight delay affected tourism, it’s affected business too – there are a lot of businesses who rely on air travel, including flying staff in and out of Smithers.”
The Visitor Centre in Smithers saw a decrease of 68 per cent visitors in August compared to the same month in 2019.
Most of the visitors were from other parts of the province, some local residents, a handful from Alberta and other places within Canada.
Compared to August 2019, the centre had 179 parties from Europe; 96 from the USA; 20 from Asia/Australia and 14 from other countries.
One local tourism operator said more than ever, now is the time to spend tourism dollars locally.
Hayley Wilson runs Adventure Camp Tourism and said she has seen an increase in people wanting to explore their own backyards more. She has also been offering more healing and retreat style experiences that have been popular lately.
“We have to spend our dollars locally right now,” she said. “So many small businesses, like mine, are under threat. All businesses benefit from tourism so let’s keep our gorgeous community alive.”
Mindy Dobreen, formerly of Manitoba but now residing in Smithers and her family decided to have a staycation this summer and Adventure Camp Tourism took them to Kitimat for a couple of days of fishing.
“We felt it was the right thing to do,” she said. “We thought there are so many places to see that are close to home. I really liked going with Hayley because she really supports local [companies.]”
With files from Thom Barker