Working for Our Communities, Canada’s Airports Deliver a Critical Service at a Critical Time

By RJ Steenstra, President and CEO of the Fort McMurray International Airport and Vice Chair of the CAC

Airports across Canada are remaining steadfast in their efforts to support their communities as they respond to COVID-19. Working together as a collective transportation network, major airports and their regional counterparts are helping bring Canadians home, and ensuring communities across the country have access to essential medical supplies, equipment and even food.

Together, we are part of Canada’s critical infrastructure network, highly trained and prepared to manage these types of disruptions. Airports are essential infrastructure, and with that comes a federal mandate and a social responsibility to adequately prepare and respond to emergencies such as natural disasters, cyber-attacks, and even global pandemics.

When a crisis hits, Canada’s airports play a critical role in emergency response efforts, collaborating with governments, health and social service agencies to manage and stabilize the situation. There are numerous examples in our history to draw from that demonstrate the essential role airports both large and small, have played in assisting people in times of disaster. One poignant example was during the 911 terrorist attacks, when the U.S. closed its airspace, diverting hundreds of planes carrying thousands of passengers to Canadian airports.

For Fort McMurray International (YMM), we only have to look as far back as the 2016 Horse River Wildfires. In May of that year, YMM joined our community partners in providing essential air service to support emergency response efforts, where 88,000 residents evacuated the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, located in Northern Eastern Alberta.

As YMM stepped-up to support evacuation and emergency response firefighting efforts, Edmonton International Airport (EIA), the closest major hub to YMM, answered the call to receive airlifted workers, individuals, families and their pets. As the wildfire raged for weeks around the urban service area perimeter, YMM continued to facilitate essential air service for water bomber aircraft, the military and Alberta Forestry.

When it was safe to return 39 days later, EIA with the addition of Calgary International Airport, Toronto Pearson and Vancouver International Airport facilitated the return of thousands of community members.

Today, we find ourselves in a similar position, working together to facilitate the safe passage of thousands of people to their homes in communities throughout Canada and abroad. There were many learnings from the fire, but one in particular resonates at this time and that is – the best way to help a community bounce back from a crisis, is to begin planning for recovery, even before the crisis subsides.

While our priority remains the health and well-being of our passengers, terminal personnel, and employees, we are keeping an eye out to the future. Traveller behaviours and expectations are constantly evolving. After COVID-19, we can expect to see an acceleration of prior industry trends aimed at creating efficiencies in passenger processing, airport management and aircraft turnaround time, all of which will have a positive impact on the guests experience while create cost efficiencies.


With passenger volumes expected to decline by more than 75 per cent between March and June 2020, and projected revenue loss of $2.2 billion or more in 2020, Canada’s airports must look at all the options available to them to ensure they remain financially sustainable for the long-term.

Canada will need its airports, both major hubs and regional now more than ever, if it is to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. As catalysts of economic development, airports will once again be key to fostering prosperous, safe and sustainable communities – all major factors in regenerate Canada’s economy in the months and years ahead.

When we shift our focus from response to recovery, Canadian businesses will look to their airports to reconnect them to national and global markets. Citizens will need air travel to strengthen social connections with family and friends. Our communities will once again rely on us to work alongside them to respond to emergencies during times of uncertainty.

And, when this time comes, all of Canada’s airports will be there.