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COVID-19 impacts flights, fuel sales at Wiarton-Keppel airport

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Traffic slowed at the Wiarton-Keppel International Airport in March and it is believed the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame.

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“As we all know COVID-19 is affecting the airport,” airport manager Zachery Premate said during Georgian Bluffs’ online council meeting on Wednesday. “We have seen movement numbers drop and also fuel sales drop during this time.”

After aircraft movements increased close to 23 per cent in February 2020 compared to the same month a year earlier, movements were down just under seven per cent in March compared to the same month a year earlier.

AVGAS sales increased more than 107 per cent in February compared to the same month in 2019, while sales dropped over 22 per cent in March compared to a year earlier. Jet fuel sales were actually up more than 48 per cent in March compared to a the same month a year earlier.

Even with the pandemic curtailing non-essential travel in mid-March, aircraft movements at the airport increased from 160 in February to 250 in March.

Premate said at the start of the month of March they were seeing traffic increase, but it quickly dropped off once provincial officials told people to cut non-essential travel due to the pandemic.

Premate, who has been airport manager since the Loomex Group began management duties at the airport at the beginning of March, explained that Transport Canada regulations treat the airport almost like a public road in that pilots are able to access the facility.

“We have shut down the terminal to the general public, but the access to the runway, the fuel system and the taxiways they are all able to be accessed by pilots that are just flying in and out,” Premate said.

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Coun. Cathy Moore Coburn expressed some concerns that there was still substantial traffic coming in and out of the airport with the province advising against non-essential travel.

“We don’t want to be facilitating an increased risk for our locals,” said Moore Coburn.

Premate said the lower traffic volumes at the airport are expected to continue in April as he is seeing fewer planes taking off and landing in recent weeks.

“I am not seeing the airport being used at the rate as I was seeing in previous years with movement numbers,” Premate said

The general public has been informed that the terminal building is closed, while airport tenants have been provided information about social distancing, Premate said. As of April 20, people are required to have face masks when they are transiting through the airport, he added.

All special events at the airport have been put on hold until the pandemic is over, while all flight schools have been temporarily shut down, Premate said in his report.

The FLY GTA passenger flight service, which operated out of the airport last year, has been indefinitely postponed.

Meanwhile, Georgian Bluffs is implementing a rent deferral program for those who rent space at the airport.
On Wednesday, council approved rent deferral for tenants for up to four months, or for the duration of the emergency period, whichever is greater.

The move came after a letter was received from tenant Wanda Kerr, who operates her business WandaWorks out of the terminal building.

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In her letter, Kerr asked for a rent reduction. She said her business depends on the public coming into her studio and they haven’t been able to do so since the terminal building closed due to the pandemic.

A report from director of operations Tyler Jahnke said that staff do not believe a rent reduction would be appropriate.

“Staff is recommending we move forward with a deferral at this time, with honest hopes that the federal and provincial governments will come around to subsidies to help out these small businesses,” Jahnke said.

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Georgian Bluffs will leave water rates the way they are for the time being, but will monitor them to see if the COVID-19 pandemic has any impact on use.

At its April 8 meeting, Georgian Bluffs was asked by a ratepayer if the municipality was considering reducing rates during the state of emergency that was put in place due to the pandemic.

A report during Wednesday’s meeting from director of finance Kassie Rocca said the municipality has yet to determine if more people staying at home due to the pandemic has resulted in more water being used by those on its municipal water systems. The municipality has four systems, at Shallow Lake, Pottawatomi, East Linton and Oxenden.

“Our cost to produce water has not gone down and at this point we have no evidence to show that useage has gone up,” Rocca said.

Water meter reads are conducted every two months with the next read taking place on April 30.

Rocca said in her report that water systems are solely funded by water rates, and the municipality needs to ensure rates are sufficient to cover costs as well as set aside funds for capital replacement.

Council has already approved waiving interest charges on outstanding water account balances until June 1.

“If the water systems begin to generate a surplus because of increased usage, staff can look at reducing water rates at that time,” it said in Rocca’s report. “But we are not currently in that position.”

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