Flight demand on the rise as region booms

The demand for oil is fuelling growth in both charter and passenger flights to the Fort McMurray region.

And it is smaller airlines, not just Canada's two major carriers, who are stepping up to deal with the increased requirements for flights into the booming oilsands territory.

A number of carriers have just added or are about to add new flights into Fort McMurray as the city's airport struggles to keep up with the pace.

"We've gone from 50,000 (airplane) movements a year to a high of 60,000 and we could even hit 70,000 movements this year," says Darryl Wightman, manager and CEO of the Fort McMurray Regional Airport Commission. "We're averaging 191 air movements a day on one runway and we're adding a 1,500-ft. expansion as we speak."

Dave Olecko, Business Edge
CEO Kim Koss says Corporate Express will offer its Fort McMurray clients 'Energy Shuttles'.

The extension should be completed by Oct. 6. The airport is also doubling the size of its main apron to allow twice as many aircraft to park, adds Wightman.

But even as more flights come in, the Fort McMurray airport faces a number of issues. Parking lots are too small - temporary gravel parking spots have been opened to accommodate the extra traffic - and the airport has outgrown the terminal, which was built in 1986. It is also looking at ways to add a second runway.

Two years ago, commercial scheduled flights moved 202,000 people through the Fort McMurray airport.

Last year, the number rose to 313,000 while this year, it is likely to surpass 400,000 passengers.

That number does not include charter flights, which Wight- man says carry another 150,000 to 200,000 people a year.

Calgary-based Corporate Express, which offers scheduled service, executive charter service, fractional ownership of private planes and fleet management services, is expanding its flight capacity to or from Fort McMurray by 30 per cent.

It's also adding 12 return flights between Calgary and Grande Prairie, 12 flights between Grande Prairie and Dawson Creek, and 10 flights between Edmonton and Fort McMurray each week. An additional 10 flights will connect Edmonton with Dawson Creek and Grande Prairie as of mid-September Lethbridge-based Integra Air also plans to fly into Fort McMurray by mid-September, bringing passengers from southern Alberta with a stop in Edmonton. Both are offering scheduled service.

Corporate Express, which has been in business for 30 years and flying charters since 1990, calls its flights "Energy Shuttles."

"We've carved off our charters," says Corporate Express president Kim Koss.

"When people go to similar places at similar times, we've introduced a scheduled flight, and augment with our charters off of that platform."

The airline says it works with both small and large oil and gas companies, with a high level of repeat business.

"We try to mimic what other people would experience if they were to own a corporate aircraft," adds Koss.

Integra says it sees a vacuum in the market, especially in offering service to the large number of workers in the southern part of the province who have oil, gas or mining experience.

Integra will operate its scheduled flights Mondays and Thursdays to coincide with oilsands work rotation shifts. At first, Integra will ally itself with Corporate Express until it gets its own licence arrangements in place, expected to take between 90-120 days, says company president and CEO Brent Gateman.

But Integra eventually plans to run its own planes on its own license.

It's not just the scheduled service that is picking up steam.

Calgary-based Atco Travel, part of the Atco group of companies, which manages charters and travel for several of the large oil and gas companies, started a Calgary-Fort McMurray-Edmonton run for its clients earlier this year.

The company doesn't operate the planes itself, but manages the flights and flight services.

"Initially we ran a Calgary-Edmonton charter shuttle and we took that one step further with the Calgary-Fort McMurray-Edmonton route," says Atco Travel president Vaughan Payne. "More capacity was required for construction and management personnel on behalf of some of the key players in Fort McMurray."

Payne says the flights carry about 300 people on four flights every 10 days.

Not all flights land at the Fort McMurray airport, though.

Yellowknife-based Canadian North Airlines says its biggest charter contract is with Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) and its Horizon project, which has its own airstrip.

Steve Hankirk, director of flight operations for Canadian North, says passengers on the oilsands route represent a cross-section of the industry.

"With the CNRL shuttle, it's vice-presidents to office workers to construction workers," says Hankirk, who adds that a similar breakdown would apply to the flights it has provided for Syncrude and the one it does for Atco Travel.

The company runs two types of planes, a Boeing 737 and a Fokker F100, and Hankirk says demand for their charters is increasing.

The CNRL flights cover Calgary and Edmonton, and also include two routes to pick up construction workers from more eastern locations: Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Montreal, Moncton, and St. John's and Deer Lake, Nfld.

Meanwhile, an earlier moratorium imposed on approval of additional private airstrips has been lifted by the Wood Buffalo council, which includes Fort McMurray. A memorandum of understanding allowing new airstrips is about to be signed.

"Our biggest concern with the private airstrips is that they would not be used for the general public or any other form of public use," says Wightman.

(Laura Severs can be reached at laura@businessedge.ca)