Passenger counts fall at regional airport

Economic headwinds have led to a sharp drop in the number of commercial passengers flying in and out of Red Deer Regional Airport this year.

Economic headwinds have led to a sharp drop in the number of commercial passengers flying in and out of Red Deer Regional Airport this year.

After a strong start in the first couple of months of the year, passenger counts nose-dived to a low of 24 in July.

“I hope it doesn’t go lower than 24,” said airport manager Cyril Cooper, in a quarterly update for Red Deer County council on Tuesday.

Part of the reason for the decline was the decision by Northwestern Air Lease Ltd., which flew to and from Fort McMurray, to shut down its Red Deer operation at the end of July.

The company, which at one point had hoped to expand its route to Kelowna and Abbotsford, B.C., was a victim of a soft economy and an opportunity that arose to rent hanger space in Calgary, said Cooper, adding the loss may not be permanent.

“We hate to see them leave, but at the same time they’re looking at coming back and starting some more service out here. So it’s more on hold.”

Passenger counts are more than a measuring stick of success. The airport must reach 1,000 commercial passengers to be eligible for federal Airports Capital Assistance Program funding. Millions have been tapped from that source in recent years to buy snow clearing equipment, install runway lighting and undertake other improvements.

This year, the airport finds itself in a similar position as 2009. At the end of November, 884 commercial passengers had flown in or out of the airport.

That prompted the Airport Authority to arrange for Swanberg Air to slash its December fares for flights to and from Calgary, Swift Current and Regina by 50 per cent.

The Airport Authority and Swanberg split the cost of the discount. The strategy did the trick and passenger numbers topped 1,000 by the end of the year.

So far this year, 851 passengers have used the airport to the end of August. Cooper said the authority is looking at ways to give passenger counts a boost over the final quarter.

A number of options are being considered, including further discounts with Swanberg.

The airline runs flights out of Red Deer three times a week on a Calgary-Red Deer-Edmonton-Grande Prairie route.

“We’re looking at ways we can support them. It’s important for us to support them and we’re trying to come up with some real strong strategies that will make sure that that happens.”

Promising talks are also underway with other carriers, but Cooper said he can’t announce anything yet.

Meanwhile, efforts to upgrade the airport continue. A taxiway, parking lot and apron were paved this year and tenders for a roughly $450,000 de-icing facility close on Wednesday.

The Springbrook facility is the only regional airport in Alberta without a de-icing facility. It includes a 21,000-litre holding tank for de-icing chemicals that are sprayed from a truck. It is hoped it will be ready by the end of October.

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com