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Red Deer airport traffic taking off

Last year ended on a high note for the Red Deer Airport.

Northwestern Air Lease Ltd., which offers twice-weekly scheduled service to both Kelowna, B.C. and Fort McMurray, enjoyed high passenger loads in December.

In fact, said Red Deer Airport Authority CEO RJ Steenstra, the count might have been the highest on record for the Springbrook-based airport.

“The flights that were going out were almost full, if not full.”

Since scheduled passenger service was reintroduced to the airport in April, approximately 1,500 people have taken advantage, said Steenstra.

He’s optimistic Northwestern’s pilots are going to get a lot busier.

The Fort Smith, N.W.T.-based airline recently received Transport Canada approval to extend its Red Deer-Kelowna route to Abbotsford, B.C. Specifics are still to be announced, but the change is expected to occur in early March.

“We would like to see five days a week to Kelowna and Abbotsford,” said Steenstra, expressing optimism that local travellers would support such a schedule.

“Vancouver and the West Coast is the highest travel destination from Central Alberta.”

Steenstra pointed out that the Abbotsford International Airport has commuter flights to downtown Vancouver and offers connections to many other destinations.

It’s also the aviation gateway to B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

“This is critically important for the airport and for the region,” he said of Red Deer’s new link to the West Coast.

Northwestern is also now authorized to fly from Red Deer to Grande Prairie, Dawson Creek, B.C., and Fort St. John, B.C. Brian Harrold, the airline’s general manager, said previously that this northern route likely wouldn’t be launched until service to Abbotsford has been established.

Steenstra thinks the new destinations and increased flight frequencies will help establish the Red Deer facility as the airport of choice for many Central Albertans.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t be at 50,000 passengers — or 100,000 passengers — given the size of our market.”

Airport officials are working to establish service east as well. Steenstra has met with officials from Saskatoon-based West Wind Aviation in hopes of persuading them to offer flights between Red Deer, and Saskatoon and Regina — both of which have international airports.

“Certainly we’re optimistic, but these processes and meetings and dialogues take a long time. It’s not unusual for a route development process to take between two and five years.”

Additions to Red Deer Airport’s list of routes could come quicker if WestJet decides to operate its new regional service there. Slated to serve smaller communities, WestJet Encore is expected to announce its initial schedule this month.

“I think everyone across the country is waiting with bated breath to hear the announcements for new centres,” said Steenstra.

Red Deer was one of only about 30 communities invited to take part in a presentation about the new regional service, but he acknowledged that the initial rollout will be limited to only a handful of airports. Still, Steenstra said he’s been working to ensure Red Deer is part of the discussion.

“I’ve been in touch with the new (WestJet Encore) president Ferio Pugliese and reiterated our interest. He’s fully aware of Red Deer.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find another market with 300,000 people that has a propensity to fly, have a disposable income such as Central Alberta has, and not currently be served by a major airline.”

Steenstra was also encouraged by the total volume of air traffic at the Red Deer Airport last year — both scheduled passenger service and other flights. The nearly 51,000 aircraft movements in 2012 was 16 per cent higher than the 44,000 recorded in 2011, when Red Deer had the third busiest regional airport in Canada.

Steenstra now expects the Red Deer Airport to move into the number 1 or 2 position.

Improved navigation equipment is being installed, he added, and Red Deer County is close to implementing an area structure plan for the airport lands that will promote development there.

One setback was the fact the temporary discontinuance of scheduled passenger service at Red Deer Airport disqualified it for federal Airports Capital Assistance Program funding until 2015, although talks with government officials about the issue are continuing.

Regardless, the matter illustrates the importance of supporting the local airport, said Steenstra.

“Don’t take it for granted, and don’t defer your economic power to cities north and south of you.”

For those who don’t think the Red Deer Airport can overcome the draw of Calgary’s and Edmonton’s airports, Steenstra points to the success of airports at Abbotsford; London, Waterloo and Hamilton, Ont.; and Nanaimo, B.C. All have thrived in the shadow of larger competitors nearby.

He cites Kelowna as a shining example of how a smaller community can develop a successful airport if it has the right vision and focus.

“Now they’re driving 1,400 jobs, $300 million in economic impact, 62 (scheduled passenger) flights a day. One airplane, flying at 80 per cent capacity into Kelowna airport, drives 16 person years of employment and about a million dollars in annual economic impact.”

Air service, summed up Steenstra, should be seen as an essential component of Central Alberta’s transportation network.

“You can build a mile of highway or a mile of rail, and all you’ve got is a mile further with those pieces of infrastructure. But if you build a mile of runway, you’ve got the world.”



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