Fort McMurray Airport Authority celebrates terminal's anniversary after tough decade

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The Fort McMurray Airport Authority celebrated the tenth birthday of its main terminal with a family-friendly affair. The afternoon barbecue was a far cry from the massive spectacle that greeted its opening in 2014, showing how the economic priorities and hopes of the region have changed in the last decade.

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Cuylar Green, vice president of operations and infrastructure for the Fort McMurray Airport Authority (FMAA), said the airport is working on improving passenger traffic, adding routes and boosting revenue. CEO Denean Robinson was not available for an interview.

“This building is sized to handle our growth for a good portion of the future so we’re in a good state that way,” he said in an interview at the June 9 event.

“Kelowna is one of our target markets as is Vancouver, as is increased frequency to Toronto, increased frequency to Edmonton and increased frequency to Calgary. We’re talking with different airlines to get a sun destination.”

The $258-million, 150,000-square foot terminal opened with an air show featuring demonstrations from the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Snowbirds, the Skyhawks parachute team and CF-18 fighter jets. Astronaut Chris Hadfield hosted an invite-only black-tie gala. Canadian rock duo Bachman & Turner performed.

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Scott Clements, the FMAA’s CEO at the time, could barely contain his smile as he gave media a tour of the terminal days before opening. Later that summer a direct flight to Las Vegas took off. Clements said there were talks about flights to Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Mexico.

The airport was one of many local institutions with big dreams for the future. Those dreams ended when global oil prices plunged in late 2014. Thousands of oilsands jobs were cut, oil companies began prioritizing transient workers and Fort McMurray’s record population growth ended.

Today the FMAA faces $148 million in long-term debt. Last year it generated more than $22.6 million in revenue but had more than $32.8 million in expenses. The international airport has no international destinations, and maintains flights to Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, and a seasonal route to Montreal.

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FMAA’s 2023 annual report reports more than 367,000 passengers passed through the airport in 2023, an increase of more than 320,000 passengers in 2022. This is far below pre-pandemic numbers, which saw more than 595,000 passengers in 2019. Passenger traffic peaked at more than 1.3 million passengers in 2014.

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People attend a barbecue celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority’s main terminal on June 9, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

“There’s been a dramatic change in our passengers from when we opened to today. COVID has been a significant detraction in that passenger flow,” said Green. “We’re growing slowly. Compared to other airports in Canada, we’re definitely on the slow arc but compared to other regional communities our size, we’re kind of on par.”

The Alberta government has approved $119,200 to help FMAA develop a strategic business case to attract more passengers. This plan will look at new or additional routes out of Fort McMurray. The funding is part of Alberta’s long-term tourism strategy. Results are expected later this year.

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Alberta Energy Minister Brian Jean has criticized oilsands companies for expanding its commuter workforce and bypassing Fort McMurray’s airport in favour of private aerodromes.

“Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge are going to be centres of growth and centres of growth need to have good air service,” said Premier Danielle Smith in a speech to the Medicine Hat Chamber of Commerce last month.

A follow-up email from Alberta Transportation spokesperson Jesse Furber said “special attention will be paid to regional airports… that can help Albertans connect themselves and their goods to major international airports and increase Alberta’s economic competitiveness.”

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Fire trucks at a barbecue celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority’s main terminal on June 9, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Fire trucks at a barbecue celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority’s main terminal on June 9, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
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Burgers are grilled at a barbecue celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority’s main terminal on June 9, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

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