Premier wants incentives bringing routes to regional airports like Fort McMurray

Smith says boosting passenger traffic and routes is critical for tourism and economic development in cities like Fort McMurray.

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Premier Danielle Smith wants the province to help expand routes at regional airports, including the Fort McMurray International Airport.

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During a May 2 presentation to the Medicine Hat Chamber of Commerce, Smith said boosting passenger traffic and routes is critical for tourism and economic development, attracting new residents, and improving living quality in cities outside Edmonton and Calgary.

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“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 Smith, according to audio of the meeting provided to Fort McMurray Today by the Medicine Hat News.

Smith said many people often find it easier to drive to airports in Edmonton or Calgary instead of flying out of their regional airports. She argued it’s been faster for her to drive from Fort McMurray to Grande Prairie instead of flying between the two cities, which she called “crazy.”

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One idea Smith said has been mentioned during meetings with airlines is a “reverse auction.” This sets minimum passenger numbers for a route to be profitable. The province would pay the difference until the route is profitable.

“I just don’t know who would come forward to offer service on that basis, but I do know that my transportation minister is very keen to build out runway capacity so we can be servicing our mid-sized cities,” she said.

“When you live as remote as we do in Medicine Hat or Grande Prairie or Fort McMurray or Lethbridge, you’ve got to be self-sufficient and I think it’s our job to try to find a way to bridge this gap.”

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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Province supporting business plan for Fort McMurray airport

The province has given the Fort McMurray Airport Authority (FMAA) $119,200 to help 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. Furber says results are expected later this year.

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.

FMAA generated more than $22.6 million in revenue last year but had more than $32.8 million in expenses. FMAA has more than $148 million in long-term debt.

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Denean Robinson, FMAA president and CEO, said in an email the FMAA is working with all levels of government to guarantee the airport’s long-term sustainability. This includes pursuing funding, and developing strategies to attract more routes and passengers to the airport.

The aviation industry has encountered significant challenges over the past several years. The support received from government to-date has been extremely appreciated, but more is needed,” said Robinson. “The need for connectivity via regional transportation hubs such as YMM, is crucial to the sustainability and prosperity of our region.”

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