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In an age when many smaller Canadian airports are caught between shrinking budgets and ballooning operating costs, the Region of Waterloo International Airport (CYKF) in southern Ontario is forging ahead with an ambitious growth plan – a plan that is spearheaded by the Region itself, supported by the local business community, and implemented by an innovative management team.
The airport, located in Canada’s “technology triangle,” serves residents in the neighbouring cities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo. In 2011, CYKF was ranked by Statistics Canada as the country’s 18th busiest airport, with a grand total of 96,907 aircraft movements during the year. Between 2005 and 2010, the airport saw a 469 per cent increase in overall passenger traffic. About 250 people work at the airfield’s 50 aviation-related businesses, ranging from the oldest, the Waterloo-Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC), to the newest, Millard Air.
Commercial activity represents a growing percentage of airport traffic. Today, the Region of Waterloo International Airport is home to WestJet, with non-stop daily service to Calgary; Bearskin, which flies to Ottawa and Montreal; Sunwing, which heads south to Punta Cana during the winter travel season; and American Eagle (American), which commenced its new Chicago service in mid-June.
Chris Wood, airport general manager, told Canadian Skies that the American service took years to secure. “It all starts with speed dating,” he explained. “Literally, there are conferences set up between airports and airlines that involve 20-minute meetings. They mix you up and you give your pitch. They’re a business; they want to make money. It’s our job to show them how they will make money here in Waterloo Region. It’s very numbers-oriented.”
Wood and his staff have run those same numbers extensively, and they add up to a clear opportunity for airlines based at CYKF. A July 2011 study performed by Wilfrid Laurier University students calculated the 2010 economic impact of the airport to be $78 million. Studies done by the airport itself have uncovered the fact that each year, two million trips start or end within 35 kilometres of the airport. Many of these trips are related to business travel for the area’s largest corporations, among them Toyota and Research in Motion (RIM).
Along with Wood, Sandra McAuley, the airport’s marketing and communications supervisor, was instrumental in bringing American to CYKF. She invited the airline’s representative to attend the Region of Waterloo’s “Passport to Success,” an annual two-day event held in conjunction with Oktoberfest and planned by CTT (Canada’s Technology Triangle), the economic development arm of the Region. The goal is to familiarize potential business partners with the region’s “culture of innovation,” by introducing them to thriving local businesses, as well as highlighting the area’s unique recreational opportunities. “After that, they got it,” said McAuley. “That lit the fire with American.”
The U.S. airline began its twice-per-day scheduled service to Chicago on June 14, using Embraer Regional Jets. Through the Windy City, the Region of Waterloo can connect to the world, which is why securing the route is a real source of pride for the airport management team. “Getting American here was a whole community effort,” said Wood. “At the end of the day, it was the business community that stepped forward and put money in, and regional council that understands the airport is an economic generator. And operationally, it cost nothing to bring American here. The staff, facilities and infrastructure were already in place.”
CYKF is operated by the Region of Waterloo, with Wood and his crew reporting to the transportation department. Council makes the final decisions concerning airport operations. It’s a management structure that is not very common these days, but Wood said it’s effective in this case. For one thing, the airport has access to the Region’s legal, human resources and accounts payable departments. And, Wood said, council recognizes the value of a thriving airport, which is a progressive, and unusual, attitude in this age of cutbacks and shoestring budgets.
“We do the best job we can do in this kind of political environment,” he said. “There are some people who are against the airport for whatever reason. Historically, politicians don’t like that kind of stuff, but here they take it on.”
The Region is not afraid to invest in its airport, subscribing to the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. Recent improvements have strengthened the runway and widened taxiways so they can accommodate Boeing 757 jets. Last August, the airport’s $11 million combined maintenance and fire hall was officially opened; and today, it is home to YKF’s new state-of-the-art fire truck. In mid-June of this year, the federal government announced that the airport would be receiving $73,559 through the Airports Capital Assistance Program (ACAP) to install runway guard lights. In total, more than $100 million (from federal, provincial and local coffers) has been spent on airport infrastructure improvements at CYKF over the last 10 years.
“The Region of Waterloo is forward-thinking; and so, for the most part, are the taxpayers,” said Wood. “They get it. They understand that Toyota, for example, when they were looking for a place to build a plant, an airport was important to them.”
Some of the commercial airlines operating out of CYKF require the airport to provide fire services. In the past, a private contractor would come out to meet each commercial flight, but that arrangement was inflexible and expensive. Then, inspiration struck: the existing operations staff was trained to airport firefighting standards.
“Three operations guys are on shift at all times,” explained Wood. “They’ll be cutting grass, and then half an hour before WestJet comes in, the guy on fire duty will go put on his fire equipment and prepare for the flight’s arrival. The other two are trained and available if something happens.”
The arrangement is efficient, both from a manpower and a financial perspective. “It was the absolute right call. It’s been amazing,” said Wood. “We now have a brand new $1 million fire truck, and 13 trained firefighters.”
He said the airport is not that far off from the financial break-even point, and there are plans in the works to make the facility bigger and better. Three new hangars have gone up in the past year, for Millard Air, IP Aviation and Waterloo Aviation. Millard Air owns the largest of them, a 50,000-square-foot facility at the northwest corner of the airport. Company president Wayne Millard told Canadian Skies that after its lease expired at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, the company looked around for a new home and landed in Waterloo.
“Geographically, the airport is well situated because it’s close to Toronto,” said Millard. “Also, we chose to come here because it’s nice to deal with an airport authority that understands aviation operations. Chris Wood looks at things through the eyes of an operator as well as those of an airport manager.”
Millard Air will employ 40 to 90 people and will provide heavy aircraft maintenance, beginning with Boeing 737s and eventually progressing to Airbus A320s and Boeing 757s. The company is awaiting its AMO (approved maintenance organization) certification from Transport Canada, but Millard hopes to be up and running by the beginning of November.
At the moment, the new heavy maintenance facility is isolated on the field; but if Wood has his way, there will be an FBO (fixed-base operator) out there soon. The airport issued an RFP (request for proposal) in May, and hopes to break ground this summer. “There is great visibility for an FBO over there, at the end of the runway, with airside and road access,” he said. “The land is serviced; they could start building tomorrow.”
The plan is to select an FBO that will bring in a fleet of corporate aircraft. Wood’s goal is to strike just the right balance between commercial, corporate and flight training activity at the airport. A former employee of the Waterloo-Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC), he understands that general aviation is critical to CYKF; but, he is also aware that commercial activity pays the bills.
The WWFC is, in fact, one of the airport’s original tenants. The flying club and flight school is celebrating 80 years of operations in Waterloo Region; today, it has a fleet of 24 aircraft and employs 45 people. Maureen Dennie, communications and special events coordinator, believes that CYKF is an excellent place to train pilots. In an email to Canadian Skies, she cited the fact that students get experience in a controlled environment that is not overly congested, although it is close to Toronto (CYYZ), one of the country’s busiest airspaces. “The Region of Waterloo has put a lot of financial backing behind the development of the infrastructure (buildings, runways, parking),” Dennie wrote. “Nav Canada has modernized several nav aids and there has been a great deal of private investment at the airport. All of this continues to make CYKF a very attractive airport.”
Wood and McAuley know that the success of a publicly-funded airport depends, to a great extent, on the climate of public opinion. They have implemented an extensive community outreach program to educate area residents about the airport and the services it offers. Airport delegates attend about two dozen events per year, ranging from parades to festivals to high school career days. Their efforts appear to be working. In the Laurier University impact study, people and businesses in the region indicated they have formed a personal connection with the airport and would be disappointed if it were to close down.
To further influence public perception, the airport invested in a prominent new roadside sign because “the shoes didn’t match the outfit,” according to McAuley. The old signage did nothing to promote the slick new terminal, built during a major expansion period that began in 2002.
The Region of Waterloo International Airport is working hard to attract business and leisure travellers by providing a fast, no-hassle travel experience. For an airport of its size, its facilities are second to none, and there’s lots of room for growth. Wood noted that CYKF could probably double its current passenger volumes without taxing its existing facilities. “We’re built for bigger here. We have the pieces in place to expand.”
However, the airport is still small enough to offer passengers a friendly, relaxed travel experience. “Every big airport in the world is the same; a lot of walking and stressful to navigate. We’re just at the point where we can be small and quick. That’s our niche,” said McAuley.
She added that the staff does try to bring “big airport” conveniences to the terminal whenever possible. With no space for a newsstand, the airport partnered with WestJet to roll out a library cart, offering used books and periodicals in exchange for a voluntary donation, which goes to local children’s charities. Edelweiss Tavern, a popular local restaurant, opened an airport eatery that serves up fresh, healthy food in a licensed establishment—something else that was instituted at passenger request. Free baggage carts and free Wi-Fi are also favourite passenger perks.
“We’re working to get some sort of duty free options, too,” said McAuley. “It’s another revenue stream, but it’s also another convenience for passengers using the airport.” An added plus for travellers flying from CYKF is the $6 per day airport parking fee, which is a real break from the premium prices charged by the lots surrounding Toronto’s
The Region of Waterloo International Airport has roots dating back to 1929, when it was first established on a piece of farmland on Lexington Road (now known as Hillside Park). In 1950, it moved to the present-day location in Breslau, Ont., becoming a general aviation facility in 1969. Today, 83 years since its inception, the airport is a long way from those farmer’s field roots. It has enjoyed tremendous growth in recent years, with management focusing on unprecedented expansion and ambitious development, under the auspices of a supportive regional council and an educated public.
Wood sees a bright future ahead. “We’re just about to start a master planning cycle. It’s a huge step for us,” he explained. “The first part will be more strategic – what should we be building for, especially with the Toronto scenario? We’ll determine our needs first, before we make any recommendations.”
As the aviation landscape in the Greater Toronto Area prepares to shift with the impending closure of Buttonville Airport, new business possibilities are emerging for other airports in the area. “Peterborough seems to be emerging as the eastern alternative,” commented Wood. “And we’re ready to be the western alternative.”
McAuley is also excited about the possibilities. “We’re ready. We really are. We’ve got all of the major things in place so that we can be a little bit flexible and grow, without another big investment,” she said. “It kind of seems like all the stars are aligning.”
Lisa Gordon is editor-in-chief of MHM Publishing’s Canadian Skies magazine.