Airports offer the first – and last – impression of a destination. What do Atlantic Canada’s airports say about the region?
Atlantic Canada’s airports are soaring. With routes at record highs and fares at all-time lows, more people are flying than ever before. Infrastructure is expanding and route capacities are growing and increasingly, airports are becoming not just places to pass through, but attractions themselves with uniquely regional cultural programs — live performances, art exhibits and friendly volunteers waiting to welcome travellers.
Welcome to Halifax
When passengers arrive at Halifax Stanfield International Airport (HSIA) — Atlantic Canada’s largest airport — they taxi along the runway, enter the gate, then walk through the terminal, seeing the shops, restaurants, local artwork — and Cheryl, dressed in Nova Scotia tartan and a welcoming smile.
Growing up, Cheryl Byard wanted to be a flight attendant. She moved to Halifax and walked confidently toward her dream, into an interview with Air Canada. She didn’t get far. She’d injured her eye and didn’t meet the vision requirements to be an airline staff member. Shifting career paths led Cheryl to her current job as a senior Crown attorney in Dartmouth, N.S. But every Saturday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., she fulfills her dream of helping travellers as a Tartan Team volunteer, greeting some of the 3.6-million travellers who trickle through the airport yearly.
The Tartan Team comprises more than 100 volunteers, dispersed throughout the airport, welcoming, guiding and helping any passengers from any airline travelling through HSIA. Similar welcome programs have also made their way into the Greater Moncton International Airport and Gander International Airport.
Cheryl and the rest of the Tartan Team have become the community faces of HSIA. “People know that when you go to the Halifax airport, there are volunteers here who are helpful,” Cheryl says. “It’s an airport they look forward to coming to.”
Cheryl is right. Year after year, HSIA is ranked among the best airports in the world. The airport received third best airport in the world under five million passengers, fourth best regional airport in North America and sixth best airport staff in North America by the Skytrax World Airport Awards.
Flying in Atlantic Canada is now more enticing than ever. Monette Pasher, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Airport Association, says: “The fares are more attractive than they’ve ever been. There are more routes; more people are flying to more places more often. It’s a much more global economy.” The trend in increasing routes and passenger traffic is Atlantic-wide. Pasher says passenger traffic has risen nine per cent in Atlantic Canada over the past five years. Airports have secured 17 new routes and increased capacity on 11 existing routes. In 2013 alone, passenger traffic jumped 4.4 per cent. Pasher says the official numbers are not in yet, but she expects Atlantic Canada to be above the national growth trends for 2014. They don’t expect this trend to slow anytime soon, predicting progress to continue through 2015. “Air transportation is no longer viewed as a luxury motor travel, it’s become integral in our way of life and I think people want to get to their destinations quicker and easier,” says Pasher. There has also been a shift in the way people travel. “People aren’t doing those two-week family holidays anymore. They might be taking a week South and then a couple of long weekends with their family,” she says. “Those types of multiple short getaways really lend themselves to air travel because of the time and convenience.”
Pasher points to the shift away from road and ferry travel, especially prominent in the Newfoundland and Labrador economy. In 2014, N.L.’s air travel increased 6.4 per cent; their ferry traffic decreased 6.7 per cent. Now, 79 per cent of nonresident visitors fly to the province. This influx of flyers has prompted the St. John’s International Airport to undergo a major expansion, more than doubling their size and capacity by 2020. “They’re really building a better gateway to their province as they recognize that growing trend in people wanting to travel by air and the need for moving people for the mobile workforce.” It’s not just St. John’s International. Of the 12 airports ACAA represents, 10 are either planning or undergoing upgrades or expansions. “Air passenger traffic has grown by 22 per cent in the last decade in Atlantic Canada. Our airport infrastructure needs to be continually expanded.”
More space for local talent
Despite going through extensive renovations, St. John’s International Airport (SJIA) entertains travellers with live performances from local musicians during peak seasons, hosting both a summer and a Christmas concert series each year. “It’s an opportunity to showcase the tremendous local talent that exists in our community, while at the same time entertaining passengers and greeters at our airport,” says Marie Manning, director of marketing and business development at SJIA. She says the live music brings a local flavour to the airport and has been very well received by travellers and the community. “The entertainment is a pleasant distraction from travelling, which can often be stressful.”
Manning hopes the current airport expansion will allow SJIA to showcase even more local culture. “We are still in the planning stage. However, our focus on expressing a local flavour and looking for ways to reach out to our community will continue going forward as we expand our facilities. The larger and less space-constrained terminal building will allow us to do more.”
Art at the airport
In New Brunswick, the Saint John Airport delivers community flair through local art exhibits. The ‘Art at the Airport’ program features photography, paintings, sculptures, woodwork, pottery and even a student artwork area showcasing the work from Loch Lomond School.
Angela McLean, vice president of operations at the Saint John Airport, says community involvement and creating a welcoming atmosphere is important. “We like to think of ourselves as a bit of a welcoming committee for Saint John — for people travelling back home from a holiday or business trip, or for visitors coming to our region. And we don’t take this responsibility lightly. We want people to feel at home when they arrive at the Airport.” The Art at the Airport program has been beneficial to both travellers and community members. “Knowing that Saint John is a community that embraces the arts, we’ve helped bring that value to life at the airport through the addition of a local art program for all travellers and employees to enjoy,” says McLean.
On the horizon
Back at Halifax Stanfield, Cheryl walks along with her long list of arrivals in hand (soon to be 30 per cent longer). Her intricate knowledge of the place is apparent. She knows the ins and outs of customs and security; what souvenirs can be found at which stores; what time the next transit bus is arriving and so much more. She and the rest of the Tartan Team are proof that an airport can grow substantially, but still be unique and personable. This is a relatively small airport compared to others around the world, Cheryl says, but people still need guidance. With that, she walks away into the bustling crowd, nodding her head left, then right, greeting each passing traveller and bringing a much needed smile to their faces.