Airport passenger numbers continue to soar

More reliable service largely responsible for increase in passenger traffic through the Nanaimo Airport.

Passenger numbers continue to rise in record numbers at the Nanaimo Airport, and this growth is only expected to continue.

It was a good news story when Mike Hooper, the president and CEO of the Nanaimo Airport, was the guest speaker at the Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce’s general meeting March 20 at the Printingdun Beanery.

“The last three years have been record numbers, and the reason we’re having record passenger numbers at the airport is we’ve addressed our reliability,” said Hooper.

Hooper says the Nanaimo Airport used to be 73-per-cent reliable in the winter months, and it is now more than 99-per-cent reliable all year.

From 2006 to 2011, the airport embarked on a two-phase expansion plan, which saw the completion of a larger terminal, more parking and faster passenger screening and baggage handling, as well as extension of the airport’s runways to accommodate commercial jet landings, and added high-intensity runway lights, lead-in lights and a new instrument landing system to significantly improve the airport’s all-weather reliability.

And those improvements have led to increased passenger numbers at the airport, explained Hooper.

The airport welcomed its millionth passenger since 2006 this past July. In 2012, more than 185,000 passengers went through the Nanaimo Airport, according to Hooper.

“As we go forward, we’re already growing four per cent this year over last year, and last year was a record year,” he said.

In 2012, the Nanaimo Airport generated more than 700 indirect and direct jobs at the airport and generated more than $54 million into the regional economy, and Hooper says these numbers will only grow.

By 2021, the airport will generate more than 1,300 full-time indirect and direct jobs and more than $97 million a year, and estimates going out as far as 2026 show that the airport will generate more than 1,600 full-time indirect and direct jobs per year by 2026 and will generate more than $121 million a year into the regional economy, he explained.

“As the community grows, we’ve got a very solid air transportation system in place to grow with the community,” emphasized Hooper. “We’re looking to do more and more, and it’s a perfect time to be in the aviation field in the central Island.”

When it comes to air service, connecting central Island residents to the Pacific Northwest is a key focus for the Nanaimo Airport, according to Hooper.

Hooper says they were very close to landing service to the Pacific Northwest when representatives from the Nanaimo Airport went down to Bellingham with Orca Air a couple of years ago, but they ended up hitting a customs issue.

“From here to Bellingham would be great because there are lots of flights from there,” he said. “Our focus for the short while will remain B.C. and the Pacific Northwest.”

Hooper says they did a presentation to Horizon Air in Seattle in 2008 before the airport’s runway expansion, and Horizon was on the Nanaimo Airport’s route development plan for this year, but when WestJet came in, the airport decided to focus on attracting WestJet and keeping Air Canada happy.

In February, WestJet announced that it would begin offering non-stop daily service between Nanaimo and Calgary this June, and Hooper is excited about this development.

“It’s fabulous to put a hook in and have WestJet established on site,” he said.

“Vancouver is kind of the main hub for Air Canada, and Calgary is the main hub for WestJet, so with those two connections, you can really go anywhere,” he added. “It really cracks it open.”

Hooper says he has been really impressed by WestJet’s culture.

“They’re a fun, dynamic, growing group, and we’re going to see that kind of dynamic feature as we go forward in their business model,” he said.

The Nanaimo Airport is about 500 acres, and Hooper says there is a lot of opportunity to grow.

“We’re not a land developer, so we’re going to use the land for aviation and aviation-related items going forward,” he said. “We have a considerable amount of area we can use for aviation items such as hangers along the runway.”

The airport is also going to start looking at increasing its parking, noted Hooper.

“The rest of the land we can start using for a number of business developments,” he said, adding these businesses will be aviation-related, such as flight schools. “We’ve had 15 reachouts, so there’s a lot of interest. I will commit to everyone that we will do it in a way that’s responsible to the environment.”