Fort McMurray airport hopes for growth in 2024 after challenging 2023

Passenger traffic in Fort McMurray rose slowly in 2023, but is far below pre-pandemic numbers. But the airport’s leadership still saw victories in 2023 and is optimistic for 2024.

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Passenger traffic at the Fort McMurray International Airport is expected to continue growing in 2024 after reporting steady growth in 2023. Annual passenger traffic is still far below pre-pandemic numbers, though.

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Denean Robinson, CEO of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority, said in an interview this challenged the airport’s revenues. However, she is optimistic 2024 will bring growth and its own successes, and show progress with its venture into real estate.

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“We’re still challenged by not having our passenger numbers back to where they need to be,” said Robinson. “We’re optimistic for 2024 and hopefully we will have some new flights to announce in the new year.”

The year ends with 360,000 passengers coming through Fort McMurray’s airport. Traffic is expected to rise to 380,000 passengers in 2024. But pre-pandemic traffic was hovering around 595,000 passengers annually when restrictions and lockdowns began. Robinson said most Canadian airports have failed to recover fully from the pandemic.

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Many of the gains is for leisurely travel, such as vacations. Business travel has plummeted as more people work desk jobs from home. Airlines are struggling with how to respond to this change, she said.

Decisions made by airlines were also setbacks. Flair Airlines’ much-hyped direct flight to Tucson failed in Fort McMurray and the four other Canadian cities offering the route. The Fort McMurray International Airport now has no international flights.

Robinson said the move was unfortunate and people who visited Tucson raved about the city. But promoting Tucson was going to be hard. Even during strong economic times, Robinson said it takes years to promote destinations that are not traditional vacation spots.

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“The ridership just wasn’t there to support Flair continuing that offering,” said Robinson. “What they were seeing with seats sold was not where they needed it to be.”

New routes are being sought by the airport’s leadership. More direct flights to Edmonton are expected to be added, and Robinson hopes it will prevent people from driving to airports in Edmonton and Calgary. Kelowna has been identified as a potential route that could be successful for Fort McMurray.

“Certainly we would hope to attract that route. There’s been no announcements for that coming back, but it’s certainly on our radar,” she said.

aurora landing
The Aurora Landing development, located on 650 acres of land south of the Fort McMurray International Airport. Image supplied by Fort McMurray Airport Authority

There were successes in 2023. More than 650 acres of land south of the airport is hitting the market for retail, offices, hotels, industrial sites and transportation.

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The land is called Aurora Landing. Michael Sieger, the airport authority’s vice president of air service and commercial development, said in a September interview that the plan is to develop the land during the next 15 years. Sieger says there is high demand for commercial and retail properties larger than what is found in strip malls.

“We believe now is the right time. We want to be fiscally responsible. We have an opportunity to manage our own way through that,” Sieger said at the time. “The land we have available gives us that opportunity to see a large increase in non-aeronautical revenue.”

Robinson said the project is in its early stages, but there has been interest from developers. A seasonal direct flight to Montreal is also a success, and Air Canada is bringing the route back this spring.

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The airport itself was named North America’s best airport serving fewer than 2 million people annually by Airports Council International (ACI). It has also been named the cleanest and most enjoyable airport on the continent. Robinson is also proud that operations has cut emissions at the airport by 34 per cent.

An arts showcase will profile local artists throughout the terminal in 2024. A volunteer program tried at other airports has also launched successfully.

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