A gateway to paradise: Muskoka Airport

In most cases, sitting in a pre-flight departure lounge can be an absolute drag. Stale air, tired faces and the bright, distracting glow of LED lights are a recipe for utter boredom.

The region of Muskoka welcomes the first flight from Porter Airlines to the region from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. Muskoka Airport Photo
The region of Muskoka welcomes the first flight from Porter Airlines to the region from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. Muskoka Airport Photo
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Not so at Muskoka Airport, where passengers are treated to a waiting area that is literally a breath of fresh air. On the Muskoka Patio, a fenced off pre-boarding space, the open design allows passengers to soak in the sights and sounds of the region one last time before taking off. Len O’Connor, the airport’s CEO, said this unique feature is the airport’s attempt at “trying to bring Muskoka into this facility.”

Connecting the airport with the region’s natural beauty is a no-brainer; Muskoka is a globally recognized tourism hot-spot. Until last year, there were limited options for getting to Ontario’s “cottage country,” with driving or floatplanes being the most popular. But the airport wanted to change that, and in 2019 it welcomed scheduled passenger operations with both FlyGTA and Porter Airlines, introducing new routes that connected the area with Toronto, St. Catharines and the Niagara region.

Initially introduced for the busy summer months, Porter operates 20 flights between Toronto and the region from June until September, the airport recently announced that there would be options for winter flights through FlyGTA as well. According to Michael Duben, the Muskoka region’s chief administrative officer, the airline partnerships were of mutual interest during the planning stages.

“The first meeting with Porter, I attended about four years ago, so it took quite a while,” Duben told Skies. “We’ve been having discussions with Porter for some time.”

Part of the process involved introducing the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to service the Porter flights – FlyGTA is a taxi service and thus isn’t required to go through the same security measures to operate from Muskoka. The solution involved constructing an area that was deemed completely secure; and though that burden fell on the airport itself, Purves stressed the importance of CATSA’s contribution.

“The solution to coming up with the CATSA service for, what was it, 20 flights in a year, was very creative,” said Bud Purves, the airport’s chair. “I’ve got to compliment the people in CATSA, and even the [Transport] minister himself got involved and he wrote us a letter and responded to find a creative solution that was cost effective for the district as well as [the] border [agents].

According to Purves, the new passenger routes are only a slice of what’s to come for the airport. After meeting with stakeholders recently, the region and airport are developing a joint master plan for the facility, hoping to drive revenue in the coming years.

“One of the areas we’re looking to put a lot of emphasis on in the future is relationships with potential partners at the airport. We realize that the airport would only be better with more partners involved, like tourist operators, local vendors, and even some of the other government areas. So it’s an important area to us and that’s an area that I think we can do better at than we have in the past,” he said.

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While there is room for improvement, the airport already contributes approximately $40 million annually to the surrounding region, a number that is set to increase with the new passenger routes. But Duben believes the airport’s biggest contribution to the area will come in the way of jobs.

“I would argue that the jobs that are being developed through some of our newer tenants, whether it’s FlyGTA or SkyService and even Porter … that’s where I think the benefit really comes in, are increased jobs,” he explained.

Along with the carriers operating flights out of Muskoka, a number of businesses have populated the airport’s campus, in turn helping to drive employment in the region. These would include Ferrari Flight Training, Muskoka Aircraft Refinishing, Northern Air Solutions — an air ambulance and aerial charter company, Freedom Flite — an MRO operating at Muskoka, among others. The airport expects the number of businesses to grow with the introduction of the Porter and FlyGTA services.

As the airport has flourished, driving employment and tourism, it’s become a point of pride for the region – a sentiment echoed by Duben.

“I think it’s a jewel, there’s no doubt in my mind,” he exclaimed. “It’s quite impressive that it can be here. I mean, when people think of Muskoka, they think of it as lakes and woods and nature trails and rivers, and things like that. But to know that there’s an airport this size that gets this much activity, I think would surprise a lot of folks.”

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