In what may be the best kept secret in the city, business is booming at the Greater Sudbury Airport in Skead, with a record number of passengers boarding flights and operating profits up by 300 per cent since 2000.
That’s a far cry from 12 years ago, when the federal government forced municipalities to take control of local airports, a move seen at the time as dooming the facilities.
But the opposite happened, at least in Sudbury, where the creation of a local board of directors took the airport in a whole new direction.
“I truly believe that was the turning point,” said Terra Glabb, director of business development with the Sudbury Airport Community Development Corporation. “At that point, there was a board of directors, a dedicated group of volunteers who were really passionate about aviation -- and who took on the airport as a project and decided to start running it like a business.”
Anyone who visited the airport in those first years after the federal government gave up control was confronted by a building in obvious need of a makeover. It never seemed busy and Air Canada flights to Toronto were becoming less frequent.
“I can remember looking back over a decade ago at … dilapidated equipment, reduced passenger loads, runways that required resurfacing and (only) a handful of tenants,” Claude Lacroix, chair of the board, writes in the airport’s annual report.
“At the time, we could not have imagined that the groundwork and time we were committing would result in the Greater Sudbury Airport as we know it today.”
While a municipal corporation, the city turned over operation of the airport to the board of governors, while maintaining the final say over decisions. In turn, the board developed a new strategic direction, focusing on attracting new business, both commercial and general aviation.
“If you look back before 2000, there wasn’t really a lot of progress,” said Glabb. “There wasn’t a lot of capital investment and our infrastructure was hurting at that point. So it’s from then on that we can really start to track the progress.”
Glabb came on board in 2007 to work with airport CEO Bob Johnston to, in her words, “be progressive and to go out and look for business.
“Bob … and I knew that we needed competition. We needed another airline. When you have a monopoly over service, it’s never good for the consumer.”
While it took time, they were eventually able to bring Porter Airlines to Sudbury in 2010, offering flights into Toronto Island Airport at a much lower cost than Air Canada was offering. Since then, Air Canada has lowered its fares, meaning travellers who might not have considered flying in the past suddenly saw it as an option.
On some days, Glabb said you can get round-trip tickets to Toronto for about $200, including taxes. As a result, the airport estimates passengers save $30 million-$40 million in airfare every year.
“So now it’s not only the business traveller who is using our airport, it’s leisure travellers, because now it’s an affordable option, versus getting in your car and driving to Toronto … It’s now even competitive with taking the bus.”
Bearskin Airlines also operates out of Sudbury, offering flights to northern destinations, while Sunwing operates from December to March, offering flights to Cuba and Mexico without having to go to Toronto.
If you look at the numbers, it’s surprising how much things have improved. At its annual general meeting Aug. 13, the board heard that 90 jobs have been added at the airport since 2000, bringing total employment to about 200. Passenger numbers increased to 250,000 in 2012, compared to less than 145,000 in 2004. It expects that figure to increase to 350,000 by 2017. Operating profits were close to $1 million last year.
That was “nearly 22 per cent better than the budgeted surplus,” Johnston said in the annual report. “Based on the rapid growth of the air service sector and our projections … the GSA is well positioned to increase its operating surplus in future years.”
In 2000, the airport paid $60,000 in municipal property taxes, compared to $200,000 in 2011 and a projected $500,000 by 2017. About $10 million in private-sector investment has been spent at the airport since 2000. Plans are in the works to spend $20 million on capital projects over the next five years.
That work includes resurfacing runways and developing land for general aviation, which includes companies that fly as part of their business, but don’t offer passenger service to the public.
As an example, Geotech, a firm that provides mapping and survey work, moved to the airport and now employs 40 people. The Ministry of Natural Resources firefighting services are also centred at the airport.
Glabb said many people don’t know the airport pays for itself, with no money coming from city taxpayers. They just added five more full-time staff, which will be paid from operating revenue. The added staff was necessary because of two factors: a federal requirement to improve fire services as the airport gets busier, and new safety rules that need to be monitored and enforced.
“(But) we don’t receive any financing from the municipal tax levy and in fact, we actually contribute to it,” Glabb said. “So the more we continue to grow and expand and attract businesses, the better it is for the city. And for the airport, obviously.”
She’s quick to point out that the airports improved fortunes aren’t only the result of good management.
“Our community is in a good place,” she said. “We’ve experienced lots of growth in the mining sector and other sectors. I think that’s definitely a big part of it.”
One question they get from the public – and something the airport would dearly love to have – is customs service. That would allow passengers to fly internationally directly from Sudbury. Sunwing’s flights from Sudbury stop in Ottawa to clear customs, something that wouldn’t be necessary if the service was available here.
But the process isn’t easy, Glabb said.
“Customs is a bigger beast than just us out here,” she said. “Even if we had the money to pay for customs services, that doesn’t mean we would get officers allocated to us ... There are issues above us that need to be worked out.”
Larger airports automatically receive customs agents, paid for by the federal government, she said. In the past, smaller airports have lobbied the federal government individually for customs, without success. Now they’re working together, Glabb said, and she thinks the cooperation will improve their chances of success.
They’re also frequently asked about the chances of adding WestJet to the list of carriers operating out of Sudbury. While the airport has talked with WestJet, no announcement is near, she said.
“We don’t really know more than you do,” Glabb said. “I think that they’re looking at routes and considering all kinds of markets in Canada. And we’re certainly open to discussions with them. We’re open for business, so we’ll see what happens.”
The airport’s success was a hot topic at the Aug. 14 meeting of city council. Mayor Marianne Matichuk said she sees more and more cars there every time she’s there.
“Every time I go out there, I park further and further away from the building,” she said. “Thanks to the support of the board, and to good administration, it has been quite a success story.”
Ward 2 Coun. Jacques Barbeau said the public should be made aware of what`s happening.
“The board of directors out there have really turned that airport around and made it a jewel for the corporation,” he said. “I think it’s a story that needs to be told.”
Councillors have invited Johnston to come make a presentation in the fall.