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As soon as COVID-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, the Region of Waterloo International Airport (YKF) will be poised to connect area residents with the rest of the country. Over the last six months, the airport has announced airline partnerships that will serve 10 new destinations from east to west.
Last September, Pivot Airlines announced plans to provide scheduled air service from YKF to Ottawa, Toronto, Windsor and Montreal. The new airline, which grew from the now-defunct Air Georgian, plans to use Canadair Regional Jets and Dash 8 turboprops to serve what it defined as a changing Canadian regional airline landscape. Pivot plans to build maintenance, operations and office facilities at the regional airport, too.
In addition, YKF announced on Feb. 10 that ultra-low-cost carrier Flair Airlines would soon be landing at the airport, offering non-stop domestic service to Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Halifax, multiple times per week. Flair said it will begin offering service at YKF on May 1.
Pivot and Flair are both raring to go, but a lot will depend on pandemic-related restrictions on non-essential travel. However, both operators are banking on pent-up travel demand and the prediction that domestic travel will be the first to recover from COVID-19.
While YKF has certainly felt the impact of the pandemic, its general manager, Chris Wood, said there have been some bright spots along the way. In November 2020, the facility had the highest traffic numbers of any Canadian airport. It even beat out the country’s largest international airports, thanks to its 13,619 takeoffs and landings – most of them due to flight school activity at the airfield.
“Corporate and general aviation (GA) has recovered quite well,” said Wood. “We’d been in the top three (busiest airports) for quite a while, most of the summer, I’d say. It just goes to show you that the activity now is at the busiest flight training airports.”
Bob Connors, general manager at Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC), told Skies the school has recovered nicely, with monthly hours flown achieving pre-COVID forecasts.
“Classes are still all virtual, but I hope by September we will be able to resume at least some in-person instruction,” he added. “We have also not had many students or staff affected directly by COVID. We have worked hard on screening, sanitizing, etc., and it seems to have worked pretty well.”
The flight school, which is associated with aviation programs at both the University of Waterloo and Conestoga College, reduced its planned student intake for September 2021, in order to focus on students who have fallen behind during the pandemic. Normal intake levels will resume in the fall of 2022, added Connors.
Before the pandemic, WestJet offered seven flights per week from YKF; today, it is currently operating just one weekly flight to Calgary. “They are still committed to the market and we’ll see what happens,” said Wood.
Corporate aviation activity at the regional airport is also down, impacted by the current ban on international flights. (In February, the Canadian government announced that all international flights – commercial, business, charter and private – would only be funnelled through Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, regardless of point of origination.)
Focused on the Future
Pandemic or not, Wood said the Region of Waterloo, which owns and operates the airport, is moving forward with expansion as outlined in its most recent master plan.
“Plans include looking at capacity pinch points, essentially around outbound baggage, the passenger hold room and domestic baggage claim,” he said. “Those are the areas that will need to be addressed (as the airport prepares for Pivot and Flair flights).”
YKF is also updating its technology and preparing for physical improvements.
“We’re designing a runway extension, terminal building enhancements, and we’re still doing environmental assessments and zoning based on new runway lengths,” explained Wood. “We are hiring seasonal summer help and will be posting for full-time operations people. We have to expand. We have to assess our hours based on the new Flair schedule. There is a lot of good things going on.”
While the YKF master plan anticipated significant growth, Wood said Flair’s introduction of six new routes at once is a bigger jump than anticipated.
“But we can handle it,” he added. “We want to make sure those flights are full. Hopefully, the community responds.”