Sam Samaddar

Kelowna International Airport director Sam Samaddar expects the aviation and COVID-19 crisis to get worse before it gets better.

Twenty-four of 66 scheduled flights in and out of Kelowna International Airport were cancelled on Thursday as airlines cut back amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is unprecedented,” said Kelowna airport director Sam Samaddar.

“We got a taste of this after 9/11 when the North American airspace was closed for a while, but this is massive and will be longer-lasting. We expect passenger numbers to drop by more than 50% with the international travel ban and airlines also justifying their domestic service.”

Most of Thursday’s cancellations were WestJet and Air Canada flights that were supposed to land at Kelowna or take off to Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary and Edmonton.

“Everything is in flux,” said Samaddar.

“Airlines are rationalizing their flight schedules daily. With international and transborder (U.S.) flights to and from Canada being shut down, booking demand has dropped right off. The domestic airspace may be open, but there’s little demand, which means cancelled flights.”

Starting Monday, WestJet will suspend all its international and U.S. flights from Kelowna to Phoenix, Las Vegas (via subsidiary airline Swoop), Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.

For the next three days, WestJet will fly passengers back to Kelowna from Phoenix, Vegas, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.

Then, at midnight Sunday, WestJet will cease all flights to and from U.S. and international destinations at all the Canadian airports it serves, including Kelowna, for least a month.

All people arriving from U.S. and international points into Canada are asked to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Air Canada is also chopping service to U.S. and international destinations. However, Air Canada doesn’t have any such services from Kelowna.

Air Canada has cancelled all flights between Kelowna and Edmonton and Kelowna and Toronto from March 23 to at least April 30.

It will continue to offer limited service from Kelowna to Vancouver and Calgary.

WestJet will continue to offer limited flights between Kelowna and Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton and Calgary.

Alaska Airlines is still flying between Kelowna and Seattle twice daily.

“Airlines are still allowed to fly travellers on essential business to and from the U.S.,” said Samaddar, “but demand is falling for that too and I suspect Alaska will cut its service to Kelowna.”

Sunwing has already stopped its flights between Kelowna and Cuba. Sunwing has also suspended all southbound flights until at least April 9.

Despite fewer flights and fewer passengers on Thursday, Kelowna’s airport was busy.

“The airline call centres are overwhelmed and it’s very difficult for people to get through,” said the airport director. “So, people are coming to the airport to go to the airline counters to cancel or rebook or to find out what’s going on.”

It’s projected Canada’s 62 airports will lose $1.3 billion in revenue because of the pandemic. That includes loss of landing and terminal fees that airlines pay for using airport facilities, loss of airport improvement fees paid by passengers and loss of car parking fees.

The losses will be much more when the hit on revenue for airlines, car rental agencies, airport restaurants and shops and tourism is taken into account.

It’s expected 22 of Canada’s 62 airports will close indefinitely during this slowdown.

As the 10th busiest airport in Canada, Kelowna airport will remain open, but with about half the activity of usual.

“We’ll go from a growing airport serving over two million passengers a year to an airport serving less than one million passengers a year,” said Samaddar.

With a ban on travel to and from U.S. and international destinations and the demand for domestic travel plummeting, airlines are taking planes out of service and looking for places to park them indefinitely.

Kelowna airport is likely to be one of the airports housing idle planes.

“As the economy shuts down globally, the impact is going to be huge — not just for aviation, but for everything,” said Samaddar.