Officials in the Gaspé and on the Magdalen Islands anxious for long-term solutions
Josh Grant · CBC News · January 06, 2022
For people living on the Magdalen Islands, the North Shore and other remote parts of Quebec, air transport is more of a necessity than a luxury.
That’s why in 2020, when Air Canada indefinitely suspended its regional routes in Quebec (and elsewhere in Canada) the CAQ government said it would intervene.
Joël Arseneau, the Parti Québécois MNA for the Magdalen Islands and the party’s transport critic says the industry and the people who depend on it are still waiting to hear the plan.
“For the Magdalen Islands and the lower North Shore, it’s our lifeline,” said Arseneau.
“Right now the service is minimal because we’re not sure what the Quebec government will be doing,” he said. “[Both] in terms of a program to help regional transport develop and offer good prices but also a regular service.”
In June, it will be two years since Air Canada cancelled its regional services and Arseneau says people in his riding are anxious to know what level of service will be provided during the busier spring and summer seasons when people visit family or return home from CEGEP or university.
Last month, he put forward a petition at the National Assembly calling on the province to support a regional transportation co-operative that wants to create a Quebec airline that can offer cheaper flights.
Airplanes bring communities in eastern and northern Quebec food, medication, goods and supplies that keep people fed, local businesses running and provide access to health services that aren’t available at regional hospitals. Regional flights are also crucial for the tourist industry during the warmer months.
Arseneau says when Air Canada left, Quebec created a committee to study all of the options for regional air travel and held five months of consultations with the leaders of communities most affected.
He says the airlines that have stepped up to maintain services are waiting to find out if the government plans to subsidize them before they consider expanding their offer.
“The committee met up until October, 2020 so we were expecting a conclusion by the end of that year or else the beginning of 2021,” he said. “And since then, we’ve been asking the government what its plans are and we still haven’t had any answers.”
In 2021, Newfoundland’s PAL Airlines launched its first flight from Gaspé to the Magdalen Islands, joining Pascan Aviation as the only companies offering flights to the Gaspé, the Magdalen Islands and the North Shore.
The mayor of Gaspé and president of the Union des municipalités du Québec, Daniel Côté, says the cost of a ticket is comparable to what it was in the past but the two airlines don’t fly nearly as often.
“Everyone’s is kind of in waiting mode when it comes to this plan,” he said. “We’re hoping it will be ambitious.”
While PAL Airlines and Pascan Aviation filled in some of the gaps left by Air Canada, Côté says the number of people flying into the regions has taken a nosedive due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and public health measures.
Gaspé’s Michel-Pouliot airport used to see 25,000 annual passengers prior to the pandemic. In 2020, 6,300 people passed through the airport and in 2021, there were around 8,500.
Arseneau says the waiting game and the impacts of COVID-19 have stalled economic development.
“It’s making the entire industry wary as to develop services or not and this is where it’s very detrimental to our regions,” he said. “Everything is kind of stopped right now.”
“What is needed is support from the government to the municipalities or the corporations that are running airports without having regular traffic.”
Bigger planes, lower costs
While Pascan Aviation and PAL Airlines are already operating in Quebec, a regional transportation co-operative called TREQ says it’s ready to take a different approach to better serve the province and reduce the cost of flying.
“What they want is to offer a service to many of Quebec’s remote cities and regions,” said Arseneau, “a service with larger planes, with lower rates … all year-round.”
He says the co-op already has more than 15,000 members and its business model is based on medium-size airlines in Ontario and British Columbia that have successfully established themselves as the main service providers in remote regions.
TREQ has already secured a loan from the federal government but wants the province to back it as well before launching operations.
Coming soon, says Transport Ministry
Arseneau says along with financial support for existing airlines, he hopes the government’s plan includes new regulations like price floors and price ceilings.
He says setting a minimum and maximum price for flights within Quebec would prevent bigger airlines like Air Canada from re-entering the market, dropping their prices and putting smaller companies out of business — something that’s happened in the past.
Asked where the province is at with its regional air travel plan, the office of Transport Minister François Bonnardel said it’s “working on it and hopes to be able to announce it soon.”
The Transport Ministry said the file is complex, especially in the middle of a pandemic, but it says once all of the work is completed it will share the details, which “will be beneficial for Quebecers.”
With files from Radio-Canada