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A few weeks before the summer of 2017 settled on Canada’s Maritime provinces, roughly a dozen people with autism and their families visited Halifax Stanfield International Airport for a mock-travel day.
They arrived at the terminal, checked in, went through security, sat with other passengers in the hold room, boarded an airliner, and listened as flight crew went through the usual announcements and pretended to take off.
“What seems simple to some of us–when you’re dealing with individuals on the [autism] spectrum, it’s not necessarily easy for them,” said Joyce Carter, president and CEO of the Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA).
“It was quite overwhelming, actually, to be there with the families and experience this event with them,” she said.
“It is a real example–a very relevant example–of how we see ourselves being in that space of empathy and emotion behind a passenger’s experience.”
Halifax Stanfield was not the first airport to offer this kind of event, which aims to help people with autism adjust to the experience of air travel. Similar initiatives had taken place at airports across North America.
But it’s still a powerful illustration of The Stanfield Way, a set of guiding principles that indicate a unique level of conscientiousness baked into the airport’s daily operations.
“We recognize that people are travelling for all kinds of reasons, and we can’t assume that they’re comfortable with our facility, with the processes, with flying, with going through an airport,” said Carter.
“You have people going to weddings, you have people coming from funerals, you have families that are reconnecting that haven’t connected for five years, you have immigrants arriving to a new country.
“There’s a lot of emotion, and we spend a lot of time trying to recognize that, and ensure that we are embracing it and putting ourselves in the shoes of those passengers.”
With this in mind, the airport trains all its employees to be happy, helpful, courteous, caring and kind in all of their interactions.
That, in a nutshell, is The Stanfield Way.
“Those virtues were created not just by us sitting around a boardroom table … but through consultations with our partners at the airport,” she said.
It appears to be working. Halifax Stanfield has seen its passenger volumes increase by 14 per cent over the last five years, with more than four million visitors passing through the terminal in 2017.
The airport had 84,045 aircraft movements last year, down slightly from 2016, but a spokesperson said these numbers often fluctuate and noted some operators have switched to larger aircraft and require fewer trips.
Cargo volumes jumped slightly upward last year, from 33,329 tonnes to 34,051 tonnes. The most popular cargo is live lobster, followed by medical and surgical instruments, aircraft parts, electrical machinery and industrial machinery.
Halifax Stanfield hosts seven cargo airlines and all of Canada’s largest passenger airlines, including Air Canada, WestJet, Porter Airlines, Sunwing Vacations and Air Transat.
“We’ve got a lot of faith in our region,” said Carter. “We’re very proud of the accomplishments that Halifax and Nova Scotia have had … over the last several years.”
Located in the Halifax Regional Municipality, 38 kilometres north of the provincial capital, the airport opened in June 1960 and serves as a hub-and-spoke operation for the entire Atlantic Region.
Its two runways have been gradually extended over the years to 10,500 feet and 7,700 feet, respectively, part of a $500 million airport improvement program that began in 2010.
The airport is named after Robert L. Stanfield, a long-time Nova Scotia politician who served as premier from 1956 to 1967 and as leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party from 1967 to 1976.
Stanfield was leader of the opposition during Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s first three terms as prime minister. His admirers remember him as “the greatest prime minister we never had.”
As for the airport, Carter sees recent growth as its greatest accomplishment, as well as its biggest challenge.
“For sure the challenge is to have growth on growth–to be able to meet the needs and the expectations of our partners, of our community, of our tourism associations, the trade needs for the Nova Scotia export industry,” she said.
“All of that is our biggest challenge, but we’re tackling it head-on.”
Halifax Stanfield is trying to position itself as an alternate gateway to Canada from Europe, with recent success through WestJet’s routes to Paris and London Gatwick.
Innovation is another major focus as the airport moves forward, and there are plans to expand its cargo capabilities by creating an air cargo logistics park.
Staying true to The Stanfield Way is another key goal, and Carter noted that’s not always easy when growth is involved.
“To continuously provide that excellent customer service, that’s hard work,” she said. “That’s something that we work at every day.
“Everyone has a link back to that customer excellence that we try to provide.”