(Sept-Îles and Montreal) “I’m discouraged!” Christine Bourque travels to Montreal every three weeks to receive chemotherapy treatments. At 36, she is battling breast cancer.

In addition to the illness, the young mother carries on her shoulders a “huge” financial burden and the constant “stress” of missing her next medical appointment. The cause ? The unreliability of regional air service.

“If the flight does not leave, I miss my exams, I miss my treatment”, simply sums up the nurse by profession, met in Sept-Îles between two dance lessons.

She has to leave the airport by taxi and sleep an extra night at the hotel. That’s not counting the meals. And fatigue related to the treatment.

“The key in my fight is to keep a positive attitude. I try, but it’s stronger than me, in the taxi to go back, I just feel like crying, I’m so tired, ”continues Ms. Bourque.

La Presse traveled to Sept-Îles, a year after the Legault government launched with great fanfare a regional air travel subsidy program to offer $500 round-trip tickets.

Former Minister of Transport François Bonnardel bet in April 2022 to “stimulate demand” with his measure, which was to “encourage airlines to extend their offer and improve that on existing routes”. However, a year later, the service “has never been worse” according to the president of the Union of Quebec Municipalities (UMQ) and mayor of Gaspé, Daniel Côté. The mayor of Sept-Îles, Steeve Beaupré, speaks of “widespread discontent” and even “popular discontent”.

The Legault government calls its program a “success”, but agrees that issues related to the reliability and frequency of flights in the region emerged after the pandemic.

It is not in the habits of airlines to reveal their internal statistics concerning delays and cancellations. Data compiled by the aerial data firm Cirium at the request of La Presse, however, allows us to see a little more clearly.

The portrait is hardly more brilliant in terms of punctuality. About 4 out of 10 flights did not depart on time in Sept-Îles and 36% were delayed in Rouyn-Noranda.

Air Canada attributes the disruptions to the winter season “during which weather conditions are often more difficult”. In an emailed statement, the company says “the majority of flights are operating on schedule.”

The mayor of Sept-Îles does not believe it: the North Shore is not its first storm. “That’s bullshit. It’s window dressing,” complains Steeve Beaupré, who personally saw his return from vacation disrupted due to the cancellation of his return flight.

The situation is so uncertain that the City of Sept-Îles has chosen to send only one representative to the UMQ meeting in Gatineau in May, to avoid possible cancellation fees for taxpayers. A citizen forum on education which was to bring together in Sept-Îles several actors from the community was also canceled this weekend because the guests could not make it in time.

The direct link to Quebec was suspended at the start of the health crisis. For a little less than a year, it is no longer possible to make the round trip between the metropolis and Rouyn-Noranda in one day due to changes at Air Canada.

The largest air carrier in the country is most often blamed, but the other carriers also face significant challenges.

During the passage from La Presse to Sept-Îles, the return flight scheduled for 10:20 a.m. Monday morning with PAL Airlines was postponed to noon, then to 2:30 p.m., finally being canceled due to a mechanical failure.

“It’s a real circus,” whispered a woman at the airport. The other passengers showed resigned faces, as if accustomed to delays. All of the travelers were moved to the only other available flight, at 8:20 p.m., which finally left on time.

The vagaries of air transport cost the population a fortune. Christine Bourque estimates that the bill for a trip for chemotherapy treatment in Montreal – which is a 10-hour drive from Sept-Îles – can easily cost her up to $1,500.

The CISSS de la Côte-Nord will reimburse a maximum of $335*. Having already quickly used up her six subsidized annual tickets (or three round trips), she pays about $700 in plane tickets to Montreal.

Air Canada’s compensation policy varies depending on the cause of cancellation or postponement. Very often, little information is communicated to passengers, reports Ms. Bourque.

(For small carriers)

Are you notified of a delay or cancellation? To increase your chances of being compensated, do not settle for an official response from a carrier. This is the recommendation of Sylvie De Bellefeuille, of Option consommateurs. “If we’re just being told ‘the plane isn’t leaving for safety reasons,’ that’s not good enough,” she said. What is the security reason? Is it a lack of staff? Should an inspection be done? This gives an idea of ​​the responsibility of the airline, underlines Ms. De Bellefeuille. The first claim must be made with the air carrier. If the answer is unsatisfactory, you can turn to the Canadian Transportation Agency (OTC), responsible for enforcing the passenger charter. Delays can be long, but having obtained the details of the cause of the delay or cancellation, the chances of winning are greater.

The business world is no exception. Entrepreneur Mirka Boudreau squarely questions her model. His company Int-Elle offers turnkey services in the mining industry. Ms. Boudreau does a lot of business in Latin America.

“It’s catastrophic”, launches the Septilienne bluntly, speaking of the air service. She notices a deterioration in service over the past year. As often as possible, she tries to avoid Air Canada, but says she is “dependent on it because of international connections”.

In the last 12 months, she estimates that she has spent $50,000 in “ticket changes” for her and her teams, and in “man-time” for employees who arrive late for construction sites. In “loss of opportunity” that runs into the millions, she laments.

For the rest, everything is on the table: moving its head office outside of Sept-Îles? Reduce your foreign exposure? “There is a decision that we will have to make as a team because of the air transport. That’s the reality. »

Amount entered in the last provincial budget to extend emergency assistance to regional carriers

Total emergency aid granted to regional air carriers since the start of the pandemic

After nine months, the popularity of $500 tickets – a key measure in the Legault government’s plan to relaunch the industry – remains mixed. Slightly less than a third of the round-trip passes available have been purchased and the citizens interviewed say they have difficulty obtaining them.

Some 31,500 of the 98,800 round-trip tickets at reduced prices on sale had found takers as of February 28, according to a recent report provided by the Ministère des Transports du Québec (MTQ).

“We intervened on the price, we set up a program with this target, and mission accomplished”, launches Yves Montigny, government deputy responsible for air transport and deputy for René-Lévesque, on the North Shore, who speaks of “success”.

La Presse had initially requested an interview with the Minister of Transport, Geneviève Guilbault, but her cabinet delegated the new CAQ MP, who chairs the Standing Committee on Air Transport, created for the Legault government last February.

A first meeting described as “fruitful” was held on Monday. The committee brings together stakeholders from the municipal world, tourism, the economic community and the airline industry, including Air Canada.

“There are a lot of flights that cancel each other, that reschedule, I hear that very well and I share that point of view,” he said.

“There is a lot of water that has flowed under the bridge since the first committee [set up after the first wave] and we will have to update several interventions,” said Mr. Montigny. “The solutions, we won’t pull them out of a hat […] that’s why we set up this permanent committee,” he says.

The mixed popularity of $500 tickets is partly explained by the unreliability of the service offered by the airlines, estimates the president of the Union of Municipalities of Quebec (UMQ), Daniel Côté, who is part of this committee. permanent. “I think the service has never been worse,” he says. The regional transport file is far from settled. Hours are not stable. »

“At home, says the one who is also mayor of Gaspé, companies no longer fly. They drive 7 hours 30 minutes to go to Quebec. It has become frequent. »

The mayor of Sept-Îles maintains that the program has not made it possible to “drop prices”. “When you look at scheduled flights, it’s not uncommon to find flights over $1,000 to Sept-Îles–Montréal,” laments Steeve Beaupré.

Fabie Francœur claims to have been unable to obtain a subsidized ticket after suffering a heart attack last September. A week after her illness, she had to go to Quebec for a medical follow-up. She called Pascan and Air Canada.

In either case, there were no more subsidized tickets available, she reports. “I would have had to book really in advance, but it is not foreseeable [the disease]”, laments the 66-year-old woman. She had to fall back on the bus. The Sept-Îles–Quebec trip takes 10 h 30 min.

“I was recovering from a heart attack, I had [heart] guardians, I spent three days in the hospital. Do you feel like doing like an eight hour bus ride? It made me very tired and anxious,” she said bitterly.

Christine Bourque also testified to the same difficulty. “I often find myself booking my tickets two weeks in advance, $500 tickets, there are never any,” she says.

Air Canada said by email that it has no “limit” of subsidized tickets per flight “until the overall allocation put in place by the government is reached.” When La Presse consulted the carrier’s website on Tuesday, it was possible to obtain a subsidized ticket for the following day.

On the other hand, on the PAL Airlines website, which also offers the Montreal-Quebec-Sept-Iles route, the “QC500” tickets are out of stock until May 15. The volume of subsidized tickets being limited by Quebec, the carrier has distributed their number to ensure that it can offer them all year round. So in their case there is a limited amount of tickets per flight.

Five-Year $500 Ticket Program Envelope

Limit of single tickets ($250) subsidized per person per fiscal year (April 1 to March 31)

The weather has its back wide when flights are delayed or cancelled. But disruptions at suppliers, failures at subcontractors and tighter regulations are also giving carriers headaches.

Co-owner of Pascan Aviation, Yani Gagnon bluntly admits: airlines are still struggling, more than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic – which severely rocked the industry.

It is more complex for Cirium to compile statistics on regional air transport. According to the firm, Pascan Aviation canceled just over 2% of its flights to the Magdalen Islands in 2023. The proportion is similar for Sept-Îles.

“In the eyes of the public, carriers are responsible,” Gagnon said. It is the company that cancels the flight, but I am sometimes taken with the problem of other trades that are part of the ecosystem, but who are not accountable. »

The manager gives an example: the breakdown of a truck used to carry out de-icing and refueling of aircraft for three days in the Magdalen Islands – operated by a subcontractor.

This type of incident affects the punctuality of a carrier even if it has nothing to do with the breakage.

Added to this are the difficulties of getting planes on time. Pascan expected to have eight SAAB-340B aircraft in its fleet last summer. The company is still waiting because the manufacturer is experiencing delivery delays.

“I don’t have a back-up,” says Mr. Gagnon. If I had all my planes, I could put one in reserve and deploy it to take over if I have a plane with a breakdown somewhere. Unfortunately, we don’t have that right now. »

A turn of the screw given in December 2020 by Transport Canada also seems to give headaches to small carriers.

A few months before the pandemic, the rest period was extended by Ottawa. The room for maneuver is therefore reduced when something unexpected happens during a stopover, points out Mr. Gagnon. He gives the example of a flight between Saint-Hubert and Gaspé.

Pilot by training and director of the Rouyn-Noranda airport, Steve Bergeron agrees.

“The company that has 100 pilots may need 110 pilots because of these rules,” he said. It takes extra volume. It’s not easy when there’s a shortage of pilots and they’re drawn to the bigger carriers. »

The mayor of Gaspé and president of the Union of Quebec Municipalities, Daniel Côté, understands that there are challenges to overcome among carriers, but he would like a little more transparency. According to him, “it’s hard to know” what undermines the quality of service.

“If they don’t have enough money to buy planes or hire pilots, let them tell us,” the politician said. We will try to arrange with the government to help them. As a political player, we are able to help them exert pressure. »