Clearing the air at YYT

If by the end of February just passed, the federal and provincial governments haven’t found the right pot of funding to defog St. John’s International Airport, then work on the project won’t start this year. And with elections in the offing for both levels of government, the potential transfer of power could put Keith Collins back where he started a year and a half ago.

In September 2009, Collins (president and CEO of the airport authority) submitted what appears to have been a reasonable request to both levels of government. He proposed a three-way partnership between the feds, the province and the airport authority with each party contributing a one-time capital investment of $8.6 million each. The purpose? To do the ground preparation necessary for installation of a Category 3 Instrument Landing System. (Nav Canada has already agreed to provide the system itself at no charge.)

There’s no doubt that YYT deserves it. As Canada’s foggiest airport, it sees approximately 1,000 commercial flights delayed, diverted or cancelled each year. And that doesn’t include air cargo, courier, military and private flights. Meetings are missed, deals are lost, students are stranded, vacations are ruined—all because of excessive fog.

Indeed, the city’s reputation as a difficult destination is so bad that airport officials say they regularly receive concerned calls from potential conference organizers enquiring about the “fog situation”. The response convinces many that an island whose air accessibility falls significantly behind Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Quebec City and Halifax isn’t worth the risk.

The Cat 3 ILS uses high intensity lighting and radio signals to allow pilots to land safely with just 600 feet of forward visibility and zero feet vertically. The result? According to Collins, it’ll lead to greater travel reliability, fewer flight delays, increased airport safety, a stronger convention industry (particularly in the high-fog spring season), cost savings of $89 million over 20 years, and reduced operating costs for airlines serving St. John’s (possibly leading to lower fares). It’ll even supposedly increase provincial GDP, employment and taxes. To put it more succinctly, at least 700 more flights each year would land safely and on time in St. John’s.

If it’s such a no-brainer, why doesn’t the airport authority just go ahead and do it? It did, after all, just release an ambitious 10-year improvement plan that includes $150 million worth of upgrades. And it raised its airport improvement fee from $15 to $20. An extra five dollars per person at an airport whose passenger traffic has grown more than twice the national average is nothing to sneeze at.

But around that silver lining lurks a grey cloud. Fuelled by the province’s oil boom, YYT’s 80 per cent increase in passenger traffic since 1999 has outgrown the airport’s ability to serve. Collins says he wants his airport to continue bringing new business opportunities to the province, but from parking facilities and security screening to baggage handling and loading docks, St. John’s International is already operating beyond its designed capacity.

All of which means that the planned $150 million of upgrades is spoken for. And, according to Collins, the airport can’t handle the additional $26 million needed for Cat 3 on its own.

Asked why he isn’t asking the local tourism sector to contribute, Collins says he didn’t think that was appropriate. “The benefits are not specific to any one industry. This (Cat. 3 ILS) has the potential to be a significant economic generator for the entire province, the region and the country.” Hence, his request for federal and provincial assistance.

Though both governments have given moral support to the project, financial support has not been so forthcoming. The delay, Collins diplomatically believes, is that they are still trying to find the right pocket of cash for this type of initiative.

Which takes this flight back where it started—with a worthy proposal apparently lost in a bureaucratic fog. Here’s a thought: the federal government alone receives $48 million annually in direct, indirect and induced taxes from airport operations. Perhaps the right source of funding may be the airport authority itself—in the form of tax breaks. Another alternative is to finally free the stalled Atlantic Gateway funding.

Personally, I don’t care where the funding comes from, only that it comes soon. Time is money after all and I have a plane to catch.

Dawn Chafe
About Dawn Chafe

For the past 19 years, Dawn has been editor of Atlantic Canada’s most award-winning and largest circulation business magazine: Atlantic Business Magazine. Under her editorial direction, Atlantic Business Magazine has won 14 Atlantic Journalism Awards, three TABBIE international business press awards and two KRW national business press awards.

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