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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on July 24, 2018

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Edmonton International Airport’s president and CEO, Tom Ruth, tells Joe Bates more about the ambitious development plans of Alberta’s gateway to the world.

It may not be the biggest or best-known airport in Canada in terms of traffic throughput, but Edmonton International Airport is almost certainly bigger than you think and arguably has one of the most ambitious programmes on the planet for developing its sizeable package of land.

Currently handling around 7.8mppa, Edmonton International Airport (EIA) is the fifth biggest gateway in the country for passenger traffic after Toronto Pearson, Vancouver, Montréal-Trudeau and Calgary.

It is also the fifth largest cargo airport in terms of volumes handled, its 41,000 tons of freight accommodated in 2017 being boosted by the growth of e-commerce and Edmonton’s status as one of Canada’s fastest growing cities with a rapidly rising reputation for technological innovation.

And for the record the 200 air traffic controllers based in Edmonton cover the largest Flight Information Region (FIR) in the world stretching from the Pacific coast to the Arctic in the north, the US in the south and all the way to Greenland in the east.

“People often have the wrong impression of Edmonton. We may be the most northerly major city in North America, but we are far from a backwater as the city is one of the fastest growing in Canada with the youngest and one of the wealthiest populations,” says the airport’s president and CEO, Tom Ruth.

“Thirty percent of our population was born outside of Canada. We enjoy fantastic road, rail and air connections, and the city itself is undergoing something of a renaissance with C$5 billion worth of investment in the downtown area in the last three years.”

Ruth, who swapped the hot-seat at Halifax Stansfield for EIA four years ago, is quick to point out that in addition to Edmonton’s traditional role as the gateway to northern Canada, the city’s diversified economy today means that it has become a magnet for IT firms and a leader in the development of artificial intelligence.

Indeed, Google DeepMind opened an office in Edmonton last year and the University of Alberta is renowned for machine learning and AI, and this type of technology focused innovation was a key reason why Air Canada inaugurated non-stop daily flights to San Francisco, and subsequently Silicon Valley, on May 1 this year.

Oil and mining related activities are, however, still hugely important to the city and EIA which last year handled around 500,000 workers on charter flights operating between Edmonton and the oil and mining regions in northern Alberta, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon.

“When people who don’t know the city think of Edmonton they tend to think of the oil industry and mining, and although these are still very important to us, the city is so much more than that today,” enthuses Ruth.

Commercial developments

Arguably the airport’s greatest asset is its size, its 7,000-acre site being the largest for a major airport in Canada. And realising that it will never need all of this for new aviation infrastructure, EIA – with the backing of the city of Edmonton, Leduc city and Leduc County – has set about creating one of the most ambitious airport city plans in the world.

As a result, EIA already boasts a host of retail, F&B and entertainment facilities that include a recently opened 100-store outlet mall called the Premium Outlet Collection; Red Cup Distillery; and Dogtopia – a dog day care, boarding and spa facility.

Other new additions include the Alberta Aerospace and Technology Centre, flight simulators, and a number of new cargo and logistics complexes that include Aeroterm’s C$10 million logistics distribution centre and a new 210,000 square foot complex for Edmonton-based trucking firm, Rosenau Transport.

All EIA cargo facilities operate within the Port Alberta Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ), reducing trade barriers and enhancing access to key Canadian Markets.

Still to come is another 1.6 million square feet of commercial development projects that include a 154,000 square foot COSTCO warehouse, which is due to open in August 2018. The project, which includes a gas station and liquor store pod, will create around 250 new jobs.

Aurora Cannabis continues construction of an 800,000 square foot high-tech facility at EIA, which will be the world’s largest medical cannabis production facility.

Gamblers will be delighted to learn that Century Casinos is developing a new mile long race track on-site, including food and entertainment facilities with slot machines, for Horseracing Alberta.

Canadian North is building a Manufacture, Maintenance, Repair and Operations (MMRO) facility in their hangar at EIA and the K5 Investment Group has begun construction of a new, five-story, 135 room Fairfield Inn by Marriott hotel at EIA, which will open in early 2019 along with a 600-metre ice skating track.

All are being funded by private investors, are under construction on airport land around the terminal, and between them are expected to create over 2,000 new jobs.

“Our job is to create economic development in a responsible way to stimulate long-term growth for the Edmonton Metro Region, and we’ve been quite successful as we’ve had nearly C$1 billion worth of investment at the airport,” states Ruth.

“As a result of these projects and traffic growth, the airport’s economic impact has gone up 40% over the last four years and now stands at C$3.2 billion per annum. We support 26,000 jobs and directly contribute C$2.8 billion to the regional GDP.”

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Aviation infrastructure

EIA’s terminal was last expanded in 2012 and led to the addition of seven new boarding bridges and new baggage handling and X-ray scanning systems, and there are no immediate plans to build new infrastructure other than a proposed extension of Runway 12/30 to 4,030m in a couple of years to better equip it to handle long-haul flights.

However, this doesn’t mean that nothing is going on at the moment in terms of its terminal building as Ruth notes that the queuing area at security is currently being doubled in size.

He adds that the airport will continue to embrace IT when it comes to enhancing operations and the passenger experience and reveals that a number of small projects presently underway across the EIA campus are designed to “improve passenger flows and operational efficiency”.

 

Customer service

Ruth states that customer service is integral to everything the airport does, revealing that EIA adopts a customer-centric approach to the way it does business.

Its performances in ACI’s annual Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer satisfaction survey seems to bear this out, EIA most recently finishing joint third Best Airport in North America in 2016 and 2017.

He counts EIA’s record of becoming the first major airport in North America to introduce a pet therapy programme to de-stress passengers and the airport’s live music programme – local musicians play sets at different airport locations on a daily basis – as two notable customer service achievements.

He also believes that EIA’s rising customer satisfaction scores have been reflected by improvements to the airport’s retail/F&BG programme and other service offerings, such as providing seven different car parking options in a bid to appeal to all tastes and budgets.

 

Traffic growth

EIA celebrated multiple new air services offerings in 2017, including the launch of a new non-stop weekly WestJet service between Edmonton and Huatulco, Mexico, as well as more flights from Edmonton to Abbotsford, Kelowna, Victoria and Cancun.

And the good news on the route development front continued this year with the launch of new routes to Prince George and Saskatoon and Victoria in addition to San Francisco and the impending launch of Air Canada Rouge services to Las Vegas and increased capacity on a number of existing services.

Talking about EIA’s route development success, Ruth notes: “We work very closely with all our airlines and as we believe that it is our job to make them succeed in the market. Our role doesn’t end when they announce a new route. In fact, if we get a new route we are relentless in working with the airline, the provincial and Edmonton tourism agencies in promoting it and making it successful.”

WestJet remains the biggest operator at the airport, accounting for around 50% of traffic at EIA, closely followed by Air Canada with a 34% market share. Fellow Canadian airlines, Flair and Canadian North, are the next largest followed by US carriers United and Delta.

EIA remains principally an O&D gateway, which makes up 83% of its traffic, primarily to destinations in Canada and the US. Transfer traffic is on the rise, boosted by passengers from both Canada and the US flying to Edmonton to catch either KLM flights to Amsterdam, Icelandair services to Reykjavik or seasonal Westjet flights to London Gatwick.

In recent months much of the transfer traffic has been fed to EIA by Edmonton-based Flair Air, which has labelled itself as Canada’s first Ultra Low-Cost Carrier (ULCC).

According to Ruth, Flair has grown “almost exponentially” at EIA in the last year serving the market with a fleet of B737-400s, and its success has persuaded WestJet’s new ULCC, Swoop, to announce plans to make the airport its second base in Canada.

Ruth admits that he harbours an ambition to make EIA into more of a transfer destination, and notes that ir is not as unrealistic as it sounds, particularly for passengers flying to Europe from western Canada or the US, as the airport’s rapid aircraft turnaround times gives it the edge over many other gateways and saves airlines money.

A healthy 7% rise in domestic traffic was the catalyst for last year’s 3.8% upturn in passenger numbers. The most popular domestic destinations and biggest routes served from EIA by some margin are Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal.

After a 2015/16 dip in traffic caused by the drop in oil prices, passenger traffic at EIA has been on the rise for the last 18 months,
and 2018 looks like being another good year for the Canadian gateway.

He says: “In the last six months or so, traffic growth has been pacing at around six to seven percent a month so, we should comfortably handle over eight million passengers in 2018.”

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Environment

EIA’s commitment to sustainable growth and development was once again demonstrated in May when it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with NextStep Renewble Energy Inc (NSRE) pledging to bring forward low-carbon, renewable fuels into the aviation and airport sectors.

Ruth says the agreement is good for the airport, aviation and the environment as it will ultimately deliver jobs, economic diversification and economic growth.

“We look forward to working with NSRE as we take the Edmonton Metro Region and Alberta forward in developing biofuels, lowering carbon emissions and generating jobs,” he enthuses.

“This work will support our goal of carbon-neutral growth by 2021 and help establish EIA as a global aviation leader and most importantly, drive research into new biofuel technologies and processes.”

With so much development going on at the airport right now, its economic impact soaring and the promise of much more to come, there is no doubt that Edmonton and Alberta is on to a winner with EIA.

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