It wasn’t all that long ago that each of the Thompson-Okanagan’s three regional airports were on a par.
In the early 1990s, Kelowna, Penticton and Kamloops were each seeing about 300,000 passengers come through their gates annually.
While the latter two have roughly stayed the same, Kelowna International Airport (YLW) has skyrocketed, with a record 1.4 million passengers choosing it as their arrival/departure point in 2012.
Nine of the 12 months were record breaking, with August being the peak month (136,000 passengers).
“Even during some of the rough economic periods in 2008 and 2009, this airport fared very well,” said Sam Samaddar, Kelowna airport CEO. He visited Vernon’s Prestige Hotel Thursday morning to discuss YLW’s evolution and where he sees it heading.
“In passenger traffic, we punch well above our weight. There are communities twice our size around the country that have less than half the air service we have.”
By 2015, Samaddar anticipates the airport could see up to 1.6 million passengers per year. By 2025, that figure could grow to 2.4 million. The challenge, he said, will be to manage expansion prudently to ensure a balance of customer service, affordability and smart growth.
In order to achieve the 2025 figure, he estimates the airport will need to be able to handle up to 650 passengers per hour. Not only will that call for expansion of airport infrastructure, but also of the regional transportation network.
“The last thing we want to do is become an impediment to the City of Kelowna in terms of creating traffic,” he said.
One of the challenges Canada faces in improving passenger flow through airports is the bottleneck caused by its onerous pre-board security screening process. Referring to countries like the U.K. and Australia, where they are able process up to 300 passengers per hour through security checks, Samaddar says there is definitely room for improvement.
“In Canada, we’re lucky to hit 120 passengers (per hour).”
Samaddar said the NEXUS program, which allows pre-screened travellers expedited processing by U.S. and Canadian border officials (including air, land and sea), is a positive step.
Not surprisingly, domestic travel makes up the bulk of Kelowna’s passenger list, with Vancouver (360,000), Calgary (242,00) and Toronto (207,000) making up the top three connections.
Samaddar said Calgary, with its links to Europe, the oil fields and the U.S., is rapidly becoming more important.
In the U.S., Las Vegas continues to be the biggest draw, with 88,000 travellers following the Sin City connection every year. Los Angeles (53,000) and Phoenix (30,000) ranked second and third, respectively.
Australia tops the international (outside the U.S.) list with 10,577 annual passengers, followed closely by the U.K. (9,597), Germany (8,365) and Japan (6,900).
Kelowna airport has added a handful of new destinations in the past year, including Cranbrook, Whitehorse, Abbotsford and Los Angeles. They have also tapped into the labour force by offering direct flights to Alberta’s oil fields.
One of major markets Samaddar would like to see added to Kelowna’s air service is Winnipeg.
But before any expansion is acted upon, Samaddar said the airport’s air service development team does its homework to determine whether it fits into the overall strategy, and how it will benefit the customer.
“We know the travel habits on our community in the Okanagan – where they’re coming from, where they’re going to, how many trips per year they’re making.”
One thing Samaddar gets a lot of is complaints about airfare costs. While he admits it is expensive to fly during peak periods, such as Christmas and school holidays, he said overall YLW is competitive.
He cited an August, 2013 study of all Canadian and U.S. border airports by cheapflights.ca. It ranks Kelowna second overall behind Bellingham, Wash. in terms of average airfare. The price difference between the two was $116 for flights to top destinations.
“We are amongst the cheapest airports in the country as it relates to fees and charges,” said Samaddar. “We’ve really gone after non-aeronautical revenues. We look at things like our concessions.”
Samaddar said the industry views anything below $8 in fees (landing fees, terminal fees) per person, per flight, is considered low. Kelowna’s are about $6.50.
However, with only two major players on the domestic airline scene – Air Canada and Westjet – he said ticket prices are bound to rise.
“They’re very comfortable with each other right now,” he said. “You’ll see pricing rise and you’ll continue to see that until you have more competition in the market place.”
To entice more air carriers onto the market, he would like to see regulatory bodies ease restrictions on foreign ownership.