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Working together: How regional airport networks can grow access and opportunity

Toronto Pearson International Airport

Growth is good – it’s something we all strive for. But what is the right strategy when on the horizon, your growth is starting to near your capacity? You bring together a group of airports to find solutions together.

That’s the idea behind the Southern Ontario Airport Network (SOAN), a network of the 11 most commercially significant airports between Kingston and Windsor.  Southern Ontario is not only Canada’s most populous region, it’s essential to Canada’s prosperity, accounting for over a third of the economy, almost 40 per cent of exports, and home to several Fortune 500 corporations, 15,000 high-tech companies and 28 universities and colleges.

As the fastest growing region in the county, Southern Ontario will continue to be an engine of Canada’s economy, but it will require long-term, high-quality air access into and out of the region. The growth in demand and diversity of air service needs requires that the region and stakeholders think differently about how to support these needs.

CAC’s president, Daniel-Robert Gooch explained that with international passenger travel expected to reach 7.2 billion annually by 2035 worldwide, many countries are looking to some form of airport network to manage capacity. However, he emphasized that the SOAN is taking its own “made-in-Canada” approach, respecting local communities’ needs and goals, and retaining each airport’s decision-making autonomy.

“The network is not prescriptive in any way” said Chris Wood, general manager of the Region of Waterloo International Airport.  “It simply allows everyone to plan on a regional basis, rather than trying to deal with problems in isolation.  At the end of the day, the SOAN accommodates the reality that passengers will still want to go where they want to go, and communities will need what they need.”

Region of Waterloo International Airport

But there is no doubt that a capacity milestone is looming. “Our forecast tells us that by 2043, aviation demand in this region will be around 110 million passengers,” said Howard Eng, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.  “When we look at the current capacity amongst airports in the region, we could be leaving millions of passengers ‘on the table’ if we don’t take action. Thankfully, we have a network of great airports that have come together to start brainstorming ways to capitalize on this incredible opportunity.”

And it’s these opportunities that keep all the airports engaged and active around the table.  The group, which includes Toronto Pearson International Airport, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, Hamilton John C. Munro International Airport, Kingston/Norman Rogers Airport, Lake Simcoe Regional Airport, London International Airport, Oshawa Executive Airport, Niagara District Airport, Peterborough Airport, Region of Waterloo International Airport, and Windsor International Airport, has already identified a number of ways that their communities, region and the country could prosper using a regional strategy.

The SOAN will allow member airports to plan on an unprecedented scale and continue to be strong economic facilitators for their local communities — whether it be tourism in the Niagara region, the high-tech sector in Waterloo or executive air services in Oshawa. The network also provides an opportunity to grow demand and raise awareness of the many airport choices passengers and businesses have to meet their air service needs.

With the region’s airports supporting more of the demand for air services — from passenger to corporate aviation flights, flight school and training to aircraft maintenance — resources at Canada’s largest airport could be freed up to support its evolution into North America’s next Mega Hub airport. This would provide the region and country with connectivity, similar to what is being offered by other major international airports around the world including London Heathrow, Dubai and Singapore.

The creation of a Canadian mega hub would be significant for the country, not only securing Canada’s place as a major nexus for global transportation, but as a way to build synergies for international business and trade opportunities. Every airport involved in the SOAN understands the long-term benefit for their own communities.

“The creation of the Southern Ontario Airport Network is an important step in the evolution of airports in our region,” said Mike Seabrook, president and chief executive officer of the Greater London International Airport Authority. “The London International Airport fully supports this initiative and believes it will allow Toronto Pearson to fulfill its destiny as Canada’s mega-hub airport while better utilizing the infrastructure of airports like London. Meeting the passenger demands of our market and improving their airport experience are at the root of this initiative.”

Outside of Southern Ontario, Canada’s airports cooperate in many ways, but no one is expecting the capacity challenges in the same way as southern Ontario any time soon.  But “soon” is a relative word.  Considering that we are seeing unprecedented demand growth in virtually every region, it is likely that other Canadian airports may eventually have to take a serious look at the benefits – and necessity – of developing their own regional network.

Your Friendly Neighbourhood Airport

If you asked the average person how their airport supports their community, they may talk about economic opportunity.  They most certainly would talk about transportation.  It’s unlikely that they would think about advance voting.

But the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport did.

Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport

“At Winnipeg Airports Authority the focus is always on enhancing the customer experience. The advance polling booth was a way to help travellers exercise their democratic right, albeit in a very unique setting,” said Barry Rempel, president and chief executive officer of Winnipeg Airports Authority. “We are always looking for new ways to showcase our community and augment the travel experience.”

Helping travellers exercise their right to vote is only one of dozens of examples of how Canadian airports reach out to support and enrich their communities in ways that have little or nothing to do with travel.  The activities reflect the needs of each community, but taken together, a bigger picture begins to emerge.  It’s one of a deeply proud, engaged and uniquely Canadian airport community.

Business-speak may call it civic engagement.  Airports call it being good neighbours and friends.

And like any good neighbour, airports welcome newcomers.  Halifax’s long tradition of receiving new Canadians was given a 21st century twist when Halifax Stanfield International Airport hosted a public citizenship ceremony in its main lobby as part of Canada’s 150th celebrations.

“We were honoured to have been chosen to host this special event for Canada’s newest citizens,” said Joyce Carter, president and chief executive officer of the Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA). “We welcome new Canadians at our airport every day and we’ve come to think of the airport as the modern-day Pier 21. The ceremony provided us with a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our nation’s 150th birthday and to show appreciation for our great country.”

President and CEO Joyce Carter of HIAA on the left

The ceremony struck a deep chord for at least one member of the board. “I know first-hand what a momentous day this is for these new citizens,” said Wadih Fares, HIAA chair and an order of Canada recipient who became a Canadian citizen in 1980. “I first came to Canada as a teenager when I was escaping the civil war in Lebanon. I believe strongly in celebrating the unique talents and contributions everyone brings to this country and today we celebrate these new Canadians.”

Vancouver International Airport

Canada’s airports celebrate peoples and cultures, from the newest Canadians to the first nations.  The Vancouver Airport Authority recently signed The Musqueam Indian Band – YVR Airport Sustainability & Friendship Agreement, a 30-year agreement based on friendship and respect to achieve a sustainable and mutually beneficial future for the community. The Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and the Musqueam Indian Band are located in the same community on land that is Musqueam traditional territory. Musqueam have historically played an integral role in many areas of YVR’s business and operations, from noise management and environmental advisory to development planning and cultural engagement.

“This marks the evolution of our relationship with the Musqueam people. We are proud to look ahead to a future where we continue to learn and grow together for the economic and social benefit of the region,” said President and CEO Craig Richmond of the Vancouver Airport Authority. “Being able to celebrate this new and exciting way forward with our friends is not only good for our business – it is the right way for YVR to move forward in the community we serve.”

Details of the Agreement include a path of education to employment with a number of scholarships and new jobs, one per cent of annual revenue from YVR, identification and protection of archeological resources and support for ongoing operations and long-term development at the airport.

The Flight Path at the Victoria International Airport

Other airports focus in on mental and physical well-being.

The Victoria Airport Authority knows that flying is only one way to get around and encourages residents and travellers to get healthy while experiencing the natural beauty of the Saanich Peninsula by running, walking or biking its 9.3 nature trail called the Flight Path. Combining spectacular scenery with historical sites and quiet contemplation, the airport’s Flight Path offers a unique experience for everyone.

“The Victoria Airport Authority (VAA) is one of the first airports in the world to develop this type of recreational facility,” said President and CEO Geoff Dickson. “The Flight Path is one part of our commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship that also includes, among other practices, protecting our forests, rehabilitating our airport creeks to remediate previous pollution and improve aquatic health, harvesting our farm fields and providing airport lands for play grounds and sports fields.”

Airports lift the Canadian economy and connect Canada to the world, but they are more than that: they are good neighbours and collaborative community partners.

Airports are Flying High

In the history of Canadian airports, there are two eras: before the 1990’s, and after. Why? Because in the 1990’s, Canada’s airports – once managed by the federal government – were transferred to local control under a not-for-profit model.

“Today Canada’s model is unique in the world,” says Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council. “We were ahead of the curve. The combination of private expertise with not-for-profit, community-based boards is admired by jurisdictions around the globe.”

The airport system has never looked back, and for good reason. The benefits have been extensive.

“The current airport authority model has served Canadian air travellers very well over the past 25 years”, notes Halifax International Airport Authority President & CEO Joyce Carter. “Halifax Stanfield, for example, has seen infrastructure investments of over $550 million in the past decade, under the watchful eye of our locally-appointed Board of Directors, all directed toward increasing the airport’s economic and social contributions to our region.”

Canada’s air transport sector, of which airports are a big part, contribute $35 billion in economic activity and $7 billion in federal taxes. They have also paid $5 billion in rent to the federal government since 1992.

Beyond the numbers, airports have made an incomparable impact on building Canada into an economic powerhouse.

“Think of all the links airports enable – trade links, business links, between communities in Canada and around the world,” says Gooch. “Airports are truly Canada’s gateways to the world, connecting communities at home and abroad.”

So, what is so powerful about this uniquely Canadian, not-for-profit model? To understand success today, you must understand the struggles of yesterday. Before the 1990’s airports were centrally managed by the federal government. Operating at a significant loss, by the time airport ownership was transferred, the cost to taxpayers was a whopping $135 million per year.

Beyond the cost deficit was the infrastructure deficit. With little money to go around, infrastructure investments were few and far between. Airports aged and repairs were desperately needed.

“The airports that were transferred absolutely needed to be reinvented,” says Gooch.

Reinvention was called for, and the calls got louder and louder. It was around this time that leaders at the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade came together and said, our airport needs to be doing more for us. Vancouver was poised to be a gateway city between the Asia-Pacific and North America. To do it, they needed a better airport. How? Through local control.

Today, officials on the boards of Canadian airports are nominated by local business groups, the municipalities and provincial and federal governments. Airports operate on a not-for-profit basis, meaning every dollar of profit is reinvested back into infrastructure and the passenger experience. That’s led to $22 billion in infrastructure investment without a penny of taxpayer support.

But at the end of the day, the greatest benefit is local orientation.

“Airports have been transformed over the last couple of decades – they are now proper gateways to their communities,” says Gooch.

Airports are locally rooted like never before; every dollar made is reinvested back into the airport; and today Canadian airports are world leaders in the industry. Yes, there are two eras in the history of airports: before not-for-profit status, and after – and airports aren’t looking back. This uniquely Canadian model works for Canada, and works for Canadians who fly.

Airports’ Tax Contributions

Passenger Flow

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