Should Air Labrador get a bailout?

If the route is cut, a string of towns will be isolated all winter

Should Air Labrador get a bailout?Since 1948, Air Labrador has been a crucial lifeline for a string of remote towns on the Labrador shore. Now they’re in danger of seeing that lifeline cut off.

Ironically, the blame may lie with the Trans-Labrador Highway, which was built to improve accessibility to the area. Since it was built, however, the airline says it has seen passenger loads plummet from 19,000 a year in 2001 to 5,000 last year, so it can no longer afford to offer the northern route.

“We made an honest effort to operate the service,” Phillip Earle, Air Labrador’s vice-president and chief operating officer, told the St. John’s Telegram last week. But with the new road, driving has upended flying as the preferred method of transportation and the airline can “no longer make a business case.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that the highway is often impassible in the winter, and phase three of the road, a gravel 250-km stretch from Cartwright Junction to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, is not complete. That means that for at least part of the year, towns such as Black Tickle and Fox Harbour could be completely cut off, with no access to mail or medical service.

The airline route is “a pretty critical transportation network in that region of the country,” says Yvonne Jones, Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal opposition leader. “If you need to have any physician, you need to go to St. Anthony Hospital, which is only accessible by air, and by ferry boat in the summer.”

Jones thinks the Conservative provincial government, headed by Premier Danny Williams, should step in with subsidies to keep the route operating. “Provincial governments need to realize that subsidization is the future for air services,” she says. But others say that would be playing into Air Labrador’s hand.

“This is what the issue is about,” says Ford Rumbolt, mayor of Mary’s Harbour, one of the towns that would be affected. “I think Air Labrador is putting a ploy to the government looking for a subsidy of sorts.”