For many years, LETHBRIDGE was an aviation cross road linking Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg to the East with Vancouver and Victoria to the West. At the same time flights from Edmonton and Calgary to the North passed though to connect with Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles to the South. What days those were but alas, no more!
However, a new vision is being formed to ensure Lethbridge’s Airport remains a viable facility for transportation, safety and economic development from now on. Towards this end an engaging presentation at the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs was conducted. The theme of the presentation was the need for transferring control of the airport from the hands of local politicians and moving in to a new governance model dedicated to meeting the needs of all Southern Albertan’s. The preferred vehicle for this new governance model would be an Independent Airport Authority.
Presentation to the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs
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New Model Needed For Airport to Survive
Former Air Traffic Controller Has A Plan
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Reporting by radio station CJOC and CTV News was also conducted
What makes an airport fly?
When most of us think of an airport, three things usually come to mind: airplanes, runways and a terminal. If you’re somewhat knowledgeable about airports then control towers, aprons (ramps) and taxiways will also be come up.
However, an airport is a lot more than these visible features. Major airports have often been compared to small cities with thousands of employees, shopping, restaurants, gift shops, spas and even their own waste and power facilities along with fire and police.
Beyond the physical aspects of an airport are the economic and social impacts on the communities they serve. In today’s fast-paced world an airport is most often the source of both first and last impressions for visiting business, government and leisure travellers. It is essential that comfort, convenience and cost to travellers work together to ensure such facilities provide a positive experience. The better that experience is, the more likely the visitors who bring their spending and investment power along with them will be impressed.
Lethbridge faces some challenges in regard to its airport. While the maxim that every community is unique appeals, it turns out that many small-market cities are experiencing some of the same difficulties as Lethbridge in attracting frequent, affordable and direct flights. At one time, when governments owned and operated airports, and regulated air service levels, a small city could count on being served under all circumstances. In the deregulated world, lower prices tend to prevail. This also means carriers must pay very close attention to their revenues and expenses while the same holds true for the airports they fly into.
Airports are now forced to compete for business just as any other form of transportation. Improved highways open under all weather conditions, and fuel-efficient vehicles, often enables travellers and shippers to choose from multiple facilities. Larger airports with their modern and attractive terminals, greater flight frequency and more direct connections have been siphoning traffic away from smaller airports all over the world. At one time Colorado Springs saw over two million air passengers per year but now 75 per cent of those passengers drive to Denver Airport instead. Meanwhile, we’re all too familiar with the great job Great Falls is doing at serving southern Alberta’s passenger needs.
In addition to handling passengers and freight and being a source of community pride, airports are also a potential source of employment and economic diversification. Some of the other unseen activities include customs, flight training, and aircraft refuelling, overhaul, maintenance, repair, modifications and manufacturing. One of the world’s foremost manufacturers of aircraft engines is in Lethbridge. Yet not one single aviation business has been established to take advantage of this fact in all the decades Pratt & Whitney has been here.
However, we can readily accommodate fly-in funerals although it remains to be seen how well that’s working at attracting passengers. Or maybe you’d like to pick up a hot tub or travel trailer on your stopover. Just don’t expect to be able to buy a hamburger while you wait for your connection as neither are options you can currently choose.
Much has been made of the availability of cheap flights from Great Falls and the frequency of flights from Calgary. Previous attempts to attract new services to Lethbridge have not been all that successful. The response is yet another expensive study commissioned by the Airports Committee and destined to join so many others gathering dust with all their unimplemented recommendations. Perhaps the problem, to borrow an old analogy, is that we keep showing up with a knife to a gun fight. Neither the city nor the county have the funds needed to make desirable improvements should those prove to be the obstacles to improved air service. Furthermore, neither over-taxed city residents nor the fiscally challenged Lethbridge County have the option to budget for these sorts of expenditures even if they wanted to.
Funding, as it turns out, is only one of the barriers to making improvements at the Lethbridge Airport. Most other airports across southern Alberta and northern Montana that make up the closest competition have a relevant governance model. The Canadian Airports Council, the main body to which many of Lethbridge Airport’s peers belong, advocates an Independent Airport Authority to oversee operations. In addition to implementing self-funding with own powers of borrowing, fee setting and planning for improvements, the airport governed this way is liberated to focus on the needs of the operation rather than the constraints of a local government.
Great Falls International Airport (GTF) serves a local market of approximately half the number as Lethbridge. It, too, competes with several other airports within a two-hour drive that are all larger and busier. Yet, aside from the advantage of a discount operator with flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix, GTF still manages to attract full-fare direct daily flights to hubs such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and even Chicago during the summer months. So how do they manage it?
It seems GTF has taken a page out of the Canadian Airport Council’s playbook. With an Independent Airport Authority in place they are exercising the opportunity to make sound decisions without pollical influence. They have done what every smart business should: they hired a professional with direct experience at attracting all manner of aviation-related businesses.
The next time you head to Great Falls for a direct flight to the destination you want to go, at a price you can afford to pay, consider taking a short drive around the airport first. On the north side of the terminal you’ll see over a dozen Canadian-made regional jets and turbo-props in various states of overhaul awaiting their next commercial assignment. The kicker is, these are all owned by a Calgary aircraft leasing company. As the immortal Homer Simpson famously says, “D’oh!”
Dale Leier is an independent consultant with a background in technology, transportation, energy and finance.