If projections maintain the current pace, a record number of passengers will land and take off from Prince George Airport this year.
Although passenger numbers dropped in September, there was more terminal traffic in each of the previous eight months this year than there was in the same months of 2011. As of the third quarter of the year, close to 302,000 passengers set foot on the tarmac at YXS, a six per cent overall increase over the 293,000 passengers over the same time period in 2011.
With three months left in the year, the Prince George Airport Authority anticipates the record 417,000 passengers set in 2008 will be eclipsed. However, that won't likely mean a new high-water mark for revenues because there are less flights on the current Prince George schedule than there were four years ago.
"[The increasing traffic is] a great sign for the economy, and it's definitely being spooled by the economy in the north," said John Gibson, CEO of the Prince George Airport Authority.
"As the passenger numbers grow we tend to see an increase in our concession revenue and an increase in our airport improvement fee revenue. What's unusual this year is the carriers haven't increased the flight schedule to meet the increasing loads, so we haven't seen the aeronautical revenue increase."
The amount of money the airport collects through landing fees and terminal fees, classed as aeronautical fees, depends on the weight of the aircraft and the number of seats each plane has. Each passenger pays an $18 airport improvement fee, which funds capital projects to expand or improve the facility. Additional revenues are also collected as rent from the gift shop, restaurant and rental car outlets.
In 2008, Prince George had daily flights to Calgary (Air Canada Jazz operated the service for two months) and Seattle (provided by Horizon Air from May to October) until those route was canceled. For most of that year, Air Canada had seven flights per day to Vancouver. Now there are only six.
"What's happened is the air carriers are just putting more people on less seats than we had before, so the load factors look good and the carriers are happy because the flights are full and the yield they get per ticket is higher," said Gibson.
"It's a good story for the airlines and a so-so story for the airport. We're happy that things are growing because if the load factors get up in the 80 per cent range the carriers will start to look at other flights. But because of the nature of fuel prices, it's not as automatic as it used to be."
WestJet announced its new winter schedule in late July and it will provide three daily flights (two on Saturdays) to and from Vancouver. The Calgary-based airline will also offer weekly direct flights on Saturdays to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, starting on Nov. 3.
Gibson still has no indication from WestJet which half of the country it will serve first when it unveils its regional airline next spring. He's also unsure if the new Bombardier Q-400 turboprop planes will be used strictly for new connections or if they will add service to existing markets.
Gibson's highest connection priority is to restore direct service to Calgary. Air Canada cut that route in June 2008. The airport authority is also trying to entice carriers to bring direct flights to Las Vegas. WestJet tested that route out from September -November last year but moved that plane east when a Toronto-New York slot opened up.
The Canada Winter Games, planned for Feb. 13 to March 1, 2015, are expected to bring a fivefold increase in the daily passenger load at Prince George Airport over a three-week period, and airport staff are making plans to handle the extra workload.
"The part of the Games we don't know is if the teams will be coming in big planes or small planes, or on charters, and we don't know if they'll be coming all at the same time or come spread throughout the day," said Gibson.
"There's going to be tremendous shift in the peak airport traffic in 2015. At the end of week one, all the athletes who come in for the first week leave, and a brand new set come in. It's the seventh or eighth day of the Games that we'll have our biggest peak challenge and that's what we have to get a grip on in the next six months, to make sure we're ready for it."
At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, some of the teams were remotely checked in off-site and their bags were screened by staff from the Canadian Air Transport Security Agency and loaded from the airport tarmac directly onto a bus, which was kept secure until the passengers left the terminal. Gibson is hoping to bring to the city the same vehicles used for those remote security checks to duplicate the system and alleviate some of the terminal traffic during the Games.
The airport has had to spend close to $1 million to upgrade its refueling station so it can handle large-capacity jumbo jets. The storage tanks are in place but there have been delays in installation of the pumping system. Gibson expects that project will be complete in January.
In 2009, the Prince George Airport completed a $36-million runway expansion to try to capitalize on Prince George's location on the circumpolar route between North America and Asia, which the city hopes will create an air cargo industry. The airport has the third-longest runway in Canada, built to handle the world's largest cargo aircraft.
Construction of a $2 million cargo warehouse was completed last year. The 25,000 square-foot building, located at the north end of the airport, is designed for cargo storage, inspection and shipping, and houses equipment used for airport operations.