COVID pandemic grounds Fort Frances Airport operations

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic last March, everything was up in the air – except most flights. There were no exceptions to this. Private airports also experienced unprojected deficits.

Tom Batiuk, Fort Frances Airport supervisor, said operations at the airport drastically changed with the hit of the pandemic.

“The airline industry is suffering tremendously from COVID,” Batiuk said. “It’s not just in Fort Frances. It’s all over the globe.”

Bearskin Airlines is the only scheduled service provider that comes to Fort Frances. Batiuk said most of their flights originate out of Thunder Bay. Flight times to Thunder Bay average about 40 to 50 minutes from Fort Frances.

“They basically stopped flying for a period of time in April of 2020 and they came back in a limited capacity in December,” Batiuk said. “Since the second shutdown, they’ve quit again as of Feb. 15. They’re looking at coming back in April, with a limited schedule again. But that remains to be seen and it’ll be based on the COVID numbers that are reported daily.”

Batiuk said although Bearskin is a huge part of the revenue that they generate at the airport, they are not the only revenue generators. Batiuk said revenue from the airport is derived from MedEvac flights, government flights and various contractors that come to the airport with helicopters.

Fort Frances Airport also relies heavily on fuel sales, which Batiuk said decreased since airplanes were grounded for most of 2020. It also relies heavily on U.S. itinerant traffic and clearing customs.

“We’re a port of entry for itinerant aircraft that come from other countries like the United States,” Batiuk said. “A lot of fishermen fly up here in the summertime, either on charters or privately, to enjoy their time in Canada. That all ended last year with with the closure of the border, and then the suspension of Canada customs services. It remains closed with no indication as to when that will be reopening just like with the border closure for land crossings.”

Batiuk said the loss of revenue generators combined increased the 2020 deficit, a sum of money that Fort Frances taxpayers look after.

Batiuk said they budgeted $95,000 in deficits in 2020. Because of COVID-19, their budgeted deficit was over by 25 per cent, totalling $119,000. The annual average deficits usually falls in the range of $60,000 and $100,000.

The budgeted deficit varies year to year, Batiuk added, and it is based on revenue and fuel sales primarily at the Fort Frances airport.

“We rely heavily on fuel sales,” Batiuk said. “And as you can imagine, with a pandemic, and no airplanes flying and nobody buying fuel, we lose where a large portion of our revenue comes from.”

In 2020, the airport was budgeted to sell $280,000 worth of jet fuel or aviation, and they finished up the year at $136,000. This is a 51 per cent decrease from the budgeted profit.

In terms of the overall revenue, Batiuk said they were budgeted to have revenues in the neighbourhood of $535,000. The airport finished at around $320,000, about a 40 per cent decrease from what they were expected to make.

There are three full time employees and one part time coverage staff from public works to cover vacation and sick time.

With travel grinding to a halt during the pandemic, the fort Frances Airport has struggled to make ends meet. The border closure and reduced gas sales have taken the biggest hits. – File photo

Although airport operations were deeply affected, Batiuk said no employees were laid off as a result. He added that they will likely not lay off anyone in the future.

“This is for the simple fact that the municipal budget for 2020 was already developed when COVID affected us in March,” Batiuk said. “Last year, we ran status quo, watching our expenses with fuel purchases and just general purchasing across the board. Even though our revenue was low last year, we’re still able to come in close to our budgeted deficit.”

Before COVID, Bearskin was scheduled to make four flights per day from Monday to Friday. There were two flights on Sunday and maintenance was done on Saturday.

Pre COVID, Batiuk said they averaged roughly 150 passengers per month who fly on the 19-passenger twin-engine turboprop.

Batiuk said in 2019, the outbound passenger count out of Fort Frances was 2,217 passengers. The passengers that go through the airport on an annual basis through Bearskin airlines are roughly 6,500 passengers.

In 2020, the number of outbound passengers was 436, so clearly a significant reduction, Batiuk said.

“Some months were zero, April was zero, May was zero, June was zero, July was zero, August was zero,” Batiuk added. “We put 17 passengers on airplanes in September, 30 in October, 46 in November, 15 in December. Now in 2021, we’ve put nine passengers on Bearskin in January, and February will be zero, March will be zero, and who knows what April will be going forward.”