Stakeholders weigh in on future of airport

Two hired consultants – Patricia Maloney of Patricia Maloney and Associates and Greg Mitchell of McElhanney Consulting Services Ltd. – were seeking input from local stakeholders on Thursday through both a meeting with the Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce that afternoon and an open house that evening.

Stakeholders at those meetings seemed to generally agree that the airport is worthy of investment as a piece of transportation infrastructure vital to businesses and to citizens, including for medical emergencies. It was also generally agreed that the need for that transportation service will grow as the local economy grows with the expansion of the oil and gas industry, the opening of new coal mines in the region, and the potential construction of the Site C Dam. Lastly, stakeholders seemed to agree that the current service – with only one airliner, one plane, no connections east of the city, and no ability for same-day return trips – can not meet the needs of the community now and in the future.

The crux remains what kind of expanded service might be available to the city, and what kind of investments are necessary to attract that service here. Tara Morgan, manager of the Chamber of Commerce, made the case for expanding the airport runway to accommodate larger jet airliners landing there. The estimated cost for extending the runway is between $8 to 14 million, but she said city taxpayers would not have to bear all of that cost because there would likely be grants available.

“The question is, ‘If we build it, will they come?’ but if we don’t, they certainly won’t,” said Morgan.

Several other stakeholders spoke in favour of increased investment at the airport.

Maloney, who has 15 years of experience developing plans for municipal airports, said expanding the runway would certainly open up the possibilities for more types of aircraft to land in Dawson Creek. She said the airport currently has enough property to expand the runway at least another 1,000 feet for a total of 6,000 feet, but any further extension would require land acquisition and potentially crossing a rail line. She added in order for the airport to accommodate the Boeing 737-700 jet airliners that WestJet flies exclusively, for example, the runway would likely have to be extended to at least 6,500 feet.

Maloney said even if that extension could be achieved, there would still need to be strong business case in order to attract those types of carriers – likely a guarantee of 8o per cent of capacity on regular flights. She said it would be even more difficult to attract WestJet or Air Canada because they already offer service out of Grande Prairie and Fort St. John and essentially would be competing against themselves if they offered flights out of Dawson Creek.

“West Jet is not the answer to everybody’s prayers, but if we’re making the airport for the long-term, we definitely have to look at what we can bump the passenger numbers up to in the short, medium and long-term, and what that that would mean for the terminal building, apron and runway, all of those things,” she said.

She did say, however, there are examples of cities that have made agreements with carriers to provide service in exchange for a guaranteed number of seat sales.

Airport manager Ian Darling added that because of the small profit margins, there is a very short window for carriers to be successful, otherwise flights will be dropped. He said, however, the local airport is very competitive in terms of landing fees and fuel charges.

Some at the consultations suggested that the community should first focus on attracting smaller carriers with smaller planes by improving the existing facilities instead of expanding right away. Mitchell said making those smaller investments to “grab the low-hanging fruit” might create the kind of momentum necessary to attract those larger carriers.

The consultations on Thursday were part of the first phase of a three-part Airport Sustainability Plan project. The project includes the development of short, medium and long-term goals and projects that would help to reach those goals. That plan is expected to be submitted to city council by Nov. 30.

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