West Coast Wonder
YVR is much more than an airport: it is also a social, cultural and political force in its own right
Wednesday June 27th 2012 - by Garth Eichel
The Vancouver International Airport (CYVR) on Sea Island, Richmond, B.C., is Canada’s second-busiest airport, serving approximately 17 million passengers and handling more than 258,000 aircraft each year. And according to 12 million passengers polled in 100 different countries, it was the best airport in North America in 2010 and 2011. That’s because YVR is much more than your typical cattle-chute airport: it is also a social, cultural and political force in its own right.
It wasn’t always so. In an ironic twist of fate, YVR owes its origins to a flip remark by Charles Lindbergh that Vancouver had “no fit field to land on.” Shortly thereafter, in April 1930, construction began on Sea Island in Richmond to create a single, 730-metre runway and a modest wood-frame administration building adorned with a control tower.
Like many Canadian airports, YVR significantly expanded during the Second World War, resulting in new facilities and hangars, an RCAF base, and a Boeing aircraft manufacturing plant. The airport continued to expand through the 1950s and into the ’60s, and with the arrival of jet airliners the airport opened its “Super-Jet Terminal” in 1968 – a $32-million building that moved 1.9 million passengers in its first year of operation.
Most domestic and international passengers became familiar with the Main Terminal on the north side of the airport, but at the same time growth continued at Airport South with the expansion of floatplane, private aircraft and charter operators, as well as maintenance facilities and a host of aviation support businesses.
YVR continued growing through the 1970s and ’80s with more and more international carriers serving the airport. To accommodate the increase in traffic, a new control tower and a $250-million, 16-gate International Terminal was opened in May 1996. The total footprint of YVR’s Main Terminal building now stands at 135,138 square metres, a space roughly equivalent to three sports stadiums.
Anyone who passes through this space will also be impressed by the art, architecture and assorted on-site attractions. In particular, the Main Terminal currently houses the largest collection of Northwest Coast Native art in the world, as well as two satellite Vancouver Aquarium Marine Exhibits – a 114,000-litre main aquarium and a smaller 1,800-litre jellyfish aquarium – that house a diverse collection of marine species native to B.C.
Indeed, such are the airport’s amenities that YVR hosted a contest last year to “Live, Eat and Sleep at YVR for 80 Days.” The winning contestant slept at The Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel, and lived full-time in the YVR community, chronicling the stories of passengers and employees alike.
And what’s a trip to the airport without some shopping? Those familiar with the West Coast lifestyle won’t be surprised to learn that hedonism is a hallmark of Vancouverites, and for that reason a new premium outlet mall is in the works at YVR.
The Vancouver Airport Authority (VAA), a community-based, not-for-profit organization that operates YVR, recently announced it was in preliminary negotiations with London-based McArthurGlen – the world’s largest outlet mall developer – to bring a premium outlet centre to YVR. If all goes well, the plan could be finalized by this June.
In more practical terms, the VAA has undertaken a number of airport improvements in recent years, the latest being Canada’s first aircraft engine-testing enclosure, which officially opened on Jan. 11, 2012. This large three-sided steel facility has approximately 1,950 sound-absorbing panels, each about six inches thick, which reduce noise from engine run-ups conducted as part of regular aircraft maintenance. This new facility is the first structure of its kind at a Canadian commercial airport and is expected to reduce engine run-up noise heard in nearby residential neighbourhoods by up to half.
This past January also saw the VAA announce that YVR would undergo $1.8 billion in planned improvements as part of its 10-year strategy. Aimed at improving customer experience and attracting new routes and carriers – particularly among fast-growing Asian carriers – the strategy includes plans to lessen connection times, introduce high-speed baggage systems and additional moving walkways, and upgrade terminals, while also maintaining airport infrastructure and improving safety and security.
“YVR is facing increasing competition from other airports; both travellers and airlines have choices,” said Larry Berg, president and CEO, VAA. “In order to remain competitive and an airport that British Columbia can be proud of, we must continue to invest in projects that make it easier and faster for passengers and their baggage to move through the airport.” He added, “More passengers using YVR means more flight choices, more tourists, more jobs for British Columbians.”
To pay for its planned improvements, the airport authority will draw on operating revenues, debt and an increase in the airport improvement fee from $15 to $20, effective May 1, 2012. (The fee for travel within B.C. and the Yukon will remain $5.)
At the same time, the B.C. government and the VAA are seeking to level the field with airports in nearby Washington State and Alberta, which are competing for international passenger traffic. To that end, the provincial government eliminated its jet fuel tax for international flights while the VAA has introduced a five-year incentive program, freezing all other airport fees at 2010 levels. So far, these moves have translated into commitments from 22 airlines agreeing to add capacity.
Currently, 62 airlines serve YVR, annually connecting some 17 million passengers to 99 destinations in Canada, the U.S. and the rest of the world. What is more, approximately 23,600 people work at 400 YVR-based businesses every day, and it is estimated that YVR annually contributes $1.9 billion to the national economy in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), while paying $608 million in annual taxes to the federal, provincial and municipal governments.
No doubt, if Charles Lindbergh were around today he would surely wish to revise his remarks on Vancouver as a suitable destination.
Garth Eichel is a Victoria, B.C.-based freelance photojournalist and publisher who has edited several aviation magazines, including Canadian Aviator and Vertical. He is a graduate of the Aviation-Flight Management Program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont., and spent 10 years flying in the Canadian North, logging over 4,000 hours on wheels, floats and skis. Eichel now enjoys life on the West Coast with his son, Rowan, his long-suffering partner, Heather Lawson, and their two dogs, Otis and Stella.
Did you know?
Aviation in Saskatchewan has created 15,000 jobs – that’s $658.5 million in wages!
Source: Saskatchewan Aviation Council