How to build a better airport

  • National Newswatch

A safe, resilient, sustainable network of airports is essential for Canada's future.  But airports need an active federal partner to get us there.After 18+ months of COVID-19, we are all ready to move forward.  While the virus is still not totally defeated, vaccine numbers continue to rise and we have a better understanding of how to contain the spread of illness.  We are ready to take the next step to rebuild our economy, restore jobs and create a greener future. But it will take the full commitment of the federal government and industry partners to get us there.Canada's not-for-profit airports operate on passenger-generated revenues and have been especially hard hit by the travel shut down.  Even though travel is beginning to open up, airports continue to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. Airports are busier, but the flow comes in peaks and valleys, with a few crowded timeslots overshadowed by many more with no flights at all.   Even with easing international travel restrictions, demand in the 3rd quarter of the year is still only 37 per cent of 2019, and year to date is just 20 per cent of 2019.Fortunately, the government has provided some financial assistance.  In all, federal support, including the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and rent deferral has come to $1.6 billion.  Beginning this summer, airports were able to access specific funding to support close to 30 projects, which they used to help finance sustainable capital projects, route development, public transit, and operations.Not only is this a good start, it is also the way forward. All the government needs to do is to evolve their short-term pandemic supports into longer term programs to build a foundation for sustainable, resilient and safe airports for decades to come.For example, the government could extend the National Trade Corridors Fund (NTCF) to increase the flow of trade and help the transportation system withstand the effects of climate change.  The fund has already have been used successfully in a number of airport projects, including expanding western Canadian air cargo export capacity at Edmonton International Airport and strengthening the transatlantic trade corridor infrastructure at Gander International Airport Authority.Other support programs that should be extended include new Airport Critical Investment Program (ACIP) and the expanded Airports Capital Assistance Program (ACAP), which invest directly into projects that enhance airport safety, security, and sustainability at large and small airports.In essence, these programs allow airports to jumpstart their carbon reduction strategies while making new investments in safety and security.  For example, the Vancouver Airport Authority will be using federal ACIP funds to support upgrades to its Runway End Safety Area and dike and drainage system. According to the airport's president and chief executive officer, Tamara Vrooman, the federal funding will enable YVR to “deliver critical safety and climate-related infrastructure projects, ensuring we are well positioned to continue serving our community and the economy that supports it as our region collectively builds back stronger for the benefit of all British Columbians.” ACIP was also accessed by Aéroports des Montréal to build its new public transit station at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport.For smaller airports, the expanded ACAP program plays a similar and equally important role.  The Greater Moncton International Airport Authority used ACAP funding to complete work on the rehabilitation of its primary runway, taxiway signage, and for a new aircraft rescue and fire fighting vehicle to be delivered in March 2022. The airport was not previously eligible to participate in the ACAP program but was able to apply this year as the program was expanded to help a greater number of regional airports manage the impacts of COVID-19.Continuing these programs with robust funding and a sharp focus on sustainability would give the government a prebuilt, turnkey solution for a greener aviation sector.The next step in aviation's recovery will be to restore competitively priced service that connects our regional and international hubs to tourism and trade opportunities.To get there, airports must repay COVID-19 debts, rebuild their financial security, and restore airline routes. The best and simplest way to help larger airports restore their finances is by waiving all airport rent until the sector recovers.  For smaller airports, the government should extend the well-received Regional Air Transportation Initiative (RATI) to bridge the revenue gap as demand slowly rebuilds.So far, the federal government has only deferred rent for the four busiest airports, so a good step would be to fully waive rent for these airports as well.  Beyond this measure, if rents are reinstated, we see an exciting opportunity for the government to collaborate with airports directly on reinvesting revenues from rents to climate change busting projects.The RATI program has been a lifeline for smaller communities. For example, the North Bay Jack Garland Airport Corporation in Ontario is using RATI funds to help mitigate the financial pressures brought on by COVID-19 by supporting operations and helping maintain 11 local jobs, plus supporting the 700 jobs that are dependent on the airport, including 320 in aircraft maintenance. Like dozens of its counterparts across the country, the Jack Garland airport not only provides critical regional access, it is also an essential part of our national transportation network and economy.The final step in our recovery plan is to get more people onto airplanes as quickly as and safely as possible by restoring consumer confidence and rebuilding connectivity.  To move forward, we must the remove costly and cumbersome processes when they are no longer necessary, such as PCR testing of fully vaccinated travellers. At the same time, we can increase cross border and international travel quickly by reopening CBSA services at regional airports and increasing resources at U.S. CBP pre-clearance airports.The way forward is clear but it will take everyone - airports, industry partners and government, to work together to create a new and stronger airport network.   It's time to execute.Daniel-Robert Gooch is president of the Canadian Airports Council.