Air Canada Pulls Plug on St. John's-London Route

The move has struck a nerve throughout Newfoundland.

The last direct flight connecting Newfoundland to London departs today, signalling the first time the province will be without the year-round transatlantic air service since World War II.

Air Canada decided in May to cancel direct passenger and cargo flights from St. John's to London Heathrow because the carrier said the route wasn't profitable enough.

The move has struck a nerve throughout Newfoundland. The province's ever-popular radio phone-in shows have been inundated with irate callers demanding a boycott of Air Canada.

St. John's Mayor Andy Wells wrote a vitriolic letter to CEO Montie Brewer, calling him arrogant and "utterly insensitive."

In addition to expected losses in tourism, the withdrawal of the route has left some Newfoundlanders bemoaning the loss of a vital link to their heritage.

"It's sad that they're breaking a tradition, especially where there's such a lot of people who have close ties with relatives and friends in England," said Glenda Dunn-O'Brien, a Kanata, Ont., computer programmer originally from St. John's.

Businesses fear the discontinued service could inhibit Newfoundland's economic growth, fuelled in recent years by the offshore oil industry.

When offshore platforms undergo on-site repairs, they often require specialized equipment such as valves, sensors and compressors from Norway and Scotland.

"The absence of that flight means that the equipment is not available on a next-day basis," said Ted Howell, president of the Newfoundland Ocean Industries Association.

"In the very worst-case scenario it could actually result in lost production ... (On) any given day that could mean 150,000 barrels of oil per day of lost production, roughly $15 million to $20 million worth of value per day."

Beginning tomorrw, St. John's passengers bound for London will be required to first fly to Halifax, adding four hours to their travel time. The direct flight usually took about five hours.

"And of course, time is money," Howell said.

For years, flights from London to Halifax would make a stopover in St. John's, dropping off Newfoundland-bound passengers. But the aircraft could not pick up travellers because federal regulations prohibit domestic passengers from boarding international flights.

To avoid sending half-empty flights to Halifax, Air Canada started taking on passengers in July 2004, but all international travellers had to clear customs in St. John's before reboarding the aircraft.

Some complained that the extended stopover was a hassle.

Keith Collins, president of the St. John's International Airport Authority, said the London flight is profitable, contrary to Air Canada's claims. But he said the airline is trying to better serve its strongest market in Atlantic Canada.

"They would like the airports in the surrounding areas to be spokes on that wheel to bring traffic to Halifax," Collins said.

In response to the fierce backlash in Newfoundland, Air Canada announced in July it will resume limited service between St. John's and London from April to September.

"We obviously heard that people want it," said Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick. "It's definitely a market we value."

But Collins said the need for direct service is year-round.

For the past three months, he and others in the business community have sought an alternative carrier.

Two airlines have been shortlisted, one from the United Kingdom.

Collins said he hopes to have the route back in service by the end of the year.

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