A year after consultations, Quebec's regional air travel plan is still stalled


For people living on the Magdalen Islands, the North Shore and other remote parts of Quebec, air travel is a necessity rather than a luxury.

For this reason, in 2020, the CAQ government announced it would intervene when Air Canada suspended its regional routes in Quebec (and elsewhere in Canada) indefinitely.

Joël Arseneau, Parti Québécois MP for the Magdalen Islands and the party's transport critic, says the industry and the people who depend on it are still waiting for the plan.

“For the Magdalen Islands and the lower north coast, it is our lifeline,” Arseneau said.

“Currently, the service is limited to a minimum because we are not sure what the Quebec government will do,” he said.[Both] in the sense of a programme for the development of regional transport, which offers not only good prices but also regular connections.”

June will mark two years since Air Canada suspended its regional flights, and Arseneau says people in his constituency are excited to see 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 submitted a petition to the National Assembly calling on the province to support a regional transportation cooperative that wants to create a Quebec airline that can offer cheaper flights.

Airplanes bring food, medicine, goods and supplies to communities in eastern and northern Quebec, which feed people, keep local businesses running and provide access to health services not available in regional hospitals. Regional flights are also critical to the tourism industry during the warmer months.

Arseneau says that after Air Canada's exit, Quebec set up a committee to examine all options for regional air travel and held five months of consultations with leaders of the most affected communities.

He says airlines that want to maintain their services are waiting to see whether the government plans to subsidise them before considering expanding their services.

“The committee met until October 2020, so we expected a conclusion by the end of the year or early 2021,” he said. “And since then we have been asking the government about its plans and still have not received any answers.”

Limited options

In 2021, Newfoundland airline PAL Airlines launched its first flight from Gaspé to the Magdalen Islands, making it the only airline other than Pascan Aviation to offer flights to Gaspé, the Magdalen Islands and the North Coast.

The mayor of Gaspé and president of the Union of Quebec MunicipalitiesDaniel Côté says the ticket price is comparable to what it used to be, but the two airlines are no longer flying as frequently.

“Everyone is in a kind of wait-and-see mode with regard to this plan,” he said. “We hope it will be ambitious.”

While PAL Airlines and Pascan Aviation filled some of the gaps left by Air Canada, Côté said the number of people flying to those regions has dropped sharply due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and public health measures.

Before the pandemic, Michel-Pouliot Airport in Gaspé had 25,000 passengers per year. In 2020, 6,300 people passed through the airport and in 2021, the number was around 8,500.

Arseneau says that waiting and the impact of Covid-19 have brought economic development to a standstill.

“The entire industry is now cautious about whether to develop services or not and this is very damaging for our regions,” he said. “At the moment everything has practically come to a standstill.”

“What we need is government support for the municipalities or companies that operate airports without regular traffic.”

Radio CanadaRadio Canada

Radio Canada

Larger aircraft, lower costs

While Pascan Aviation and PAL Airlines already operate in Quebec, a regional transportation cooperative called TREQ says it is ready for a different approach to better serve the province and reduce flight costs.

“They want to offer a service to many remote cities and regions of Quebec,” said Arseneau, “a service with larger aircraft, at lower prices … all year round.”

He says the cooperative already has more than 15,000 members and its business model is based on mid-sized airlines in Ontario and British Columbia that have successfully established themselves as primary service providers in remote regions.

TREQ has already secured a loan from the federal government, but would also like support from the province before starting operations.

Coming soon, says Ministry of Transport

Arseneau hopes that the government's plan will include new regulations such as minimum and maximum prices in addition to financial support for existing airlines.

He says setting minimum and maximum prices for flights within Quebec would prevent larger airlines like Air Canada from re-entering the market, lowering their prices and forcing smaller companies out of business – something that has already happened in the past.

When asked how far the province was with its regional air travel plan, the office of Transport Minister François Bonnardel said they were “working on it and hope to be able to announce it soon.”

The Ministry of Transport said the file is complex, especially in the midst of a pandemic, but once all the work is completed, it will share the details, which “will be of benefit to Quebec residents.”