But improved economy, new business area and hangar offer hope to boost passenger numbers
“Passenger growth drives everything in our business,” he said.
“Over the last year and a half I would have to admit that we've seen a bit of a struggling Sudbury economy,” Johnston said. “We're hoping that we see some improvement in that heading into 2015.”
Johnston said the airport is at the mercy of Sudbury's cyclical mining economy. When times are good more people book flights, but in mining downturns, passenger numbers also take a dive.
“There's some small indication that the mining sector may be on the increase, so we'll just have to hang tight,” he said.
To attract WestJet, or other carriers, Johnston said the airport would need to reach the 350,000 passenger mark to make it worthwhile.
While passenger numbers could stagnate until mid-2015, Johnston said the airport has seen growth in other areas.
Last year, the airport opened its 230-acre northeast quadrant for business.
Businesses interested in setting up shop at the airport can do so without paying any development fees.
The lots – available for lease – are fully serviced by water, sewer and hydro.
For Johnston, one of the most exciting developments is a planned 34,000-square-foot hangar that will house Discovery Aviation's flight academy and fire detection business, along with a research team from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.
The hangar – which is expected to completed by early 2015 – will be the airport's largest.
“Strategically it's pretty important,” Johnston said.
He hopes it will act as a landmark that could attract more businesses to the Greater Sudbury Airport.
Discovery Aviation and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine currently occupy a 15,000-square-foot hangar that is slated to become the Ministry of Natural Resources' new home at the airport.
The new hangar will be large enough to house CL-415 water bomber or a Q400 aircraft, used by Air Canada and WestJet, amongst other airlines.
The medical school collaborates with Discovery Aviation at the smaller hangar to conduct research that explores the links between environmental and human health.
Greg Ross, a professor and researcher with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, said moving to the larger space will allow the research team – which already includes 25 members – to expand further.
“We've certainly outgrown our existing arrangement,” Ross said. “This will be an amazing opportunity as we move into a bigger hangar where we can house the equipment we use together and even expand it.”
Ross and his team of medical researchers have used Discovery's specialized cameras and aircraft – built to detect forest fires – to identify blue-green algae blooms in Northern Ontario and list the plant life in stressed ecosystems, such as abandoned mine sites.
For Johnston, the research project is one example of how the airport can expand its business footprint. “Sky's the limit for the types of diverse businesses that could set up shop at the airport,” he said.