For airlines caught in the eye of the coronavirus storm, Canada’s second fiscal act can’t come soon enough.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Government promised that a plan to help the industry would follow an CN$82 billion (US$56.9 billion) aid package announced Tuesday. Airlines say he’d better hurry. Providing too little money, too late could prove fatal for some.
“If nothing happens in the next couple of weeks we’re going to see some people shut down permanently,” said John McKenna, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, which represents some smaller carriers including Porter Airlines and Sunwing Vacations. “What we need is a cash inflow.”
His request echoes pleas from airlines around the world as carriers cut routes and staff to survive. Air Canada has laid off more than 5,000 flight attendants, the Canadian Press reported, citing a representative at the union that represents them.
From Asia to North America, the industry may need as much as US$200 billion to weather the pandemic, according to the International Air Transport Association. The US Treasury will propose lending airlines US$50 billion, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg News.
In Canada’s vast territory, the CN$26 billion industry lives off business travellers who need to get around and consumers looking to escape the harsh winters. Now airlines are drastically curtailing or suspending operations to respond to Government decisions to tighten the border and discourage Canadians from travelling abroad.
Air Canada, by far the largest, said Wednesday it will gradually suspend most international and US flights while serving a reduced domestic network. Two days earlier, it announced cost-cutting measures and called on the Government to help through forbearance of taxes, landing fees and other charges.
Up until this year, the stock had been among the 10 best-performing in Canada’s benchmark equity index over the previous decade. It has lost about 75 per cent of its value since a peak in January.
Some airlines are more concerned with survival than taxes, said McKenna. WestJet Airlines Ltd, Porter and Transat AT Inc are laying off staff as they stop flying Canadians out of the country or suspend operations entirely.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau said in an interview with BNN Bloomberg TV that he knows there are immediate cash flow problems in the airline and oil sectors and said the Government will take “additional measures” soon. “We will be refining what we’ve done, we will be thinking about [the] next steps.”
Earlier this week, Morneau touted “a tailored set of tools” being developed by the nation’s export credit agency and the federal development bank for the airline and oil industries. Trudeau said measures could also include the Canada account. That’s the instrument the Government used for its contribution to the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler more than a decade ago.
A rescue package for all Canadian airlines could require as much as CN$10 billion, said John Gradek, a former Air Canada executive who teaches at McGill University’s Global Aviation Leadership Program. McKenna says CN$5 billion would be acceptable, provided not all of it goes to WestJet and Air Canada, which tower over the rest.
Air Canada’s credit rating was put under review for downgrade by Moody’s Investors Service on Wednesday. Still, it has access to CN$7.3 billion in cash, which could take it through the summer, according to Doug Taylor, a Canaccord Genuity analyst in Toronto.
“Going into this virus, they were probably in the best shape they’ve ever been, both financially and competitively,” he said. “Air Canada could be one of the last ones standing.”
Nevertheless, its debt has sold off in the market turmoil as investors price in new risks. A bond issue due in April 2021 is now trading at 94 cents on the dollar to yield 14 per cent, according to Bloomberg data. That debt was worth 105 cents at the beginning of March.
At higher risk are smaller carriers which will go bankrupt unless they receive significant help from the Government, said Tae Hoon Oum, a transportation and airline expert at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.
“That means less competition in the long run,” he said.
The crisis, by forcing a lot of people to work from home, will likely make employers reconsider how much business travel is needed when it is over, according to McGill’s Gradek. If Canada pours public money into airlines, they should adjust to new realities and refrain from flooding the market with flights, he said.
“There [are] lots of other industries that are going to need as much if not more help than the airline industry so we got to be very judicious and reasonable in terms of the funds that we give,” he said. “The industry has got to change. It cannot be the same industry it was two months ago.”