Northern Alberta mayors, fearful that Edmonton’s City Centre Airport will ultimately be closed down, have offered to take it over and run it as a commuter airport, serving the needs of their communities.
Edmonton Regional Airports Authority, which operates both the City Centre Airport and Edmonton International Airport, has imposed a 10-passenger cap on regularly scheduled flights at the downtown airport; 19-seater planes will no longer be able to fly there after January 1.
Users of the downtown airport, especially those from northern Alberta, worry that the ultimate goal of the airport authority is to close the airport. The authority has a 56-year lease from the city but, as Councillor Ron Hayter points out, the city could take the airport back if the authority doesn’t fulfil its obligations.
Grande Prairie Mayor Wayne Ayling says the five northern airports – Grande Prairie, Peace River, Fort McMurray, High Level and Fort Chipewyan, all independently run – have experience in managing consumer-driven, consumer-responsive airports. The mayors believe they could run the airport at a profit.
|Jack Dagley photos, for Business Edge|
|Air Mikisew marketing manager Dale Monaghan with flight hostess Miriam Greenan and first officer Garry Akitt|
Mayor Mike Mihaly of High Level suggests a loose coalition of northern regional airports would allow 19-seater airplanes to fly anywhere among them, including the downtown airport.
If they wanted to go elsewhere, they would have to fly to Edmonton International Airport.
“Edmonton would have its cake and eat it too,” he says. “It would strengthen their international status because they would have more people flying into the international airport.”
Scott Clements, president and CEO of the airport authority, has described the City Centre Airport as “Calgary’s second airport.”
People continue from the downtown airport to Calgary to connect to long-haul flights, hindering Edmonton’s efforts to attract more direct flights to the city. He could not be reached for comment, but Traci Bednard, spokesperson for the airport authority, says it is merely doing what Edmontonians voted for in a referendum in 1994 – moving regularly scheduled service from the downtown airport to the International.
She says that just over half of the travellers arriving in Edmonton are continuing on.
But Dale Monaghan, marketing manager for Air Mikisew, operated by the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan, says fewer than 20 per cent of the passengers flying into the downtown are connecting passengers.
|Air Mikisew marketing manager Dale Monaghan says most of the airline’s passengers simply want to fly the most efficient route into Edmonton.|
“In the case of Air Mikisew, 90 per cent of our passengers are terminating in Edmonton,” he says.
Those passengers like the convenience of the City Centre Airport: its proximity to downtown, to hospitals and medical services. People can arrive, do their business and leave the same day. The long, expensive trip from the International Airport – easily 35 to 45 minutes – and the increased security at airports since 9/11, which adds to waiting times, are some of the drawbacks of the international airport.
When you factor in waiting time and travel to downtown Edmonton, Ayling notes, it’s quicker to drive in from Grande Prairie – and many people are doing so. Increasingly, northerners are also choosing to bypass Edmonton and taking their business directly to Calgary, he adds.
“The City of Edmonton and its taxpayers are losing money that northerners would be happy to give them, if they had commuter business access at City Centre Airport,” Ayling says.
Mihaly says that people from High Level can now access in Grande Prairie most of the services they used to get in Edmonton.
If the City Centre Airport is closed, they’ll switch to Grande Prairie and Edmonton’s economy will suffer, he believes.
Mihaly also worries about the future of MediVac flights, which transport seriously injured or ill people to Edmonton hospitals. Landing at the downtown airport means they’re minutes away from both the Royal Alexandra Hospital and University Hospital. MediVac flights won’t be affected unless the City Centre Airport is closed; flights will then have to go to the International Airport, adding to the time required to get to hospital.
Ayling says Clements has assured northerners that the City Centre Airport will always be open to MediVac flights, “but why not open it up to customers who will pay?” he asks.
Air Mikisew’s Monaghan says Clements has told them that “his goal is to close the City Centre Airport, because it is draining the resources from the international airport.”
He adds that Edmonton Mayor Bill Smith, who heads the Northern Mayors Caucus, has reassured people in the North that the downtown airport will remain open. Smith could not be reached for comment for this story.
The contradictory remarks from Smith and Clements “doesn’t make the business community in the North very comfortable,” Monaghan adds.
Clements is conducting a study of the airport, which should be completed toward the end of the year. Councillor Hayter, who believes Clements will eventually recommend that the City Centre Airport be closed down because it is no longer viable, pushed for an independent study by the city’s auditor-general. The second report should be finished before the January 1 deadline.
“I think that the (auditor’s) review is going to show that in the current state, the City Centre Airport is not viable,” says Hayter. “But that’s not to say that it couldn’t be viable. Despite all the handicaps, people still want to use it.”
In fact, Dave Robertson of Alta Flight Services and a member of Air Services for Tomorrow, an air-services lobby group, believes that Edmonton is big enough to support two airports: a commuter airport, such as the City Centre Airport, that brings people who are not travelling beyond Edmonton, and the international airport for long-haul traffic.
He describes the City Centre Airport as a “destination Edmonton airport,” where people are coming just to Edmonton and not travelling through.
“The mayor and city council have to make a decision as to what role they want the City Centre Airport to play in their city. They need to understand how the decision will affect the City of Edmonton. As it is now, hobbled and stripped of its revenue-generating abilities, it’s not going to be productive.”
The 10-passenger cap at the City Centre Airport is a sticking point for Monaghan. He’s willing to abide by the cap, but wishes it could be a 10-passenger average instead.
“Sometimes, we fly down here with only four passengers; sometimes we can have 14 passengers.”
He points out that the 19-passenger plane, even if it’s only carrying 10 passengers, is cheaper and more efficient to operate than a nine-passenger plane.
“Both take two pilots to fly, both take roughly the same amount of fuel, both cost the same to maintain. In the case of Fort Chipewyan, which is isolated 10 months of the year, except for a winter highway in December and January, Air Mikisew is the highway out of there.”
Monaghan has offered to remove nine seats on planes flying to the City Centre Airport. “It takes about five minutes to remove nine seats because it’s just a few bolts.”
The airport authority rejected his proposal, he says. High Level Mayor Mihaly says: “For 40 or 50 years, we’ve been using the City Centre Airport. It’s our airport. Our landing fees have paid for it.”
Don Grimble, executive director of the Kingsway Business Association, which represents business in the area around the downtown airport, agrees.
“We call ourselves the Gateway to the North; then we turn around and make it difficult for these people to get into the city by air.”
As the January 1 deadline approaches, his group, the airlines that use the City Centre Airport, the Northern Mayors Caucus and the Northern Alberta Development Council, chaired by Peace River MLA Gary Friedel, are intensifying their lobbying efforts to save the City Centre Airport.
Provincial Economic Development Minister Mark Norris has described the airport as “a real jewel for this city and for economic development.”
“It’s not like you’re expecting something to be put in place,” says Friedel. “The airport is already there. It’s very useful and extremely workable.”