Working with its community: Winnipeg International Airport

For the past 23 years, tucked away on the grounds of the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport (CYWG), a garden staffed by airport employees has provided local food distribution charities with over 65,000 pounds of vegetables. All of it has been grown right there on the airport campus.

The airport is planning to move forward with a new multi-tenant air cargo logistics facility, set to open in 2023/2024. WAA Photo
The airport is planning to move forward with a new multi-tenant air cargo logistics facility, set to open in 2023/2024. WAA Photo
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“It’s a fairly large garden and we tend to it all summer long,” Barry Rempel, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Airports Authority (WAA) told Skies. “We donate those vegetables, primarily root vegetables, to Winnipeg Harvest, which is a food bank in town … for those that probably don’t use the airport a lot, but they’re part of our community.”

The project, along with Rempel’s sentiment, is a reflection of the airport’s mission statement that begins with the words “with our community.”

Since the Winnipeg Airports Authority took over responsibility for the airport from the federal government in 1997, its mission has been to give back to Winnipeggers.

At the time, the airport’s total economic impact equalled $384 million and around 7,000 community-wide jobs, according to Rempel. Since then, the WAA has drastically increased those figures.

“We now have $3.4 billion in economic impact and are now supporting over 17,000 jobs,” explained Rempel. “You know, that’s a fairly significant shift. To do that, we went back to our mission statement and started working on very specific projects.”

One such endeavour involved StandardAero, one of the world’s largest aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities, with a location at Winnipeg International. In the early 2000s, the company was looking to get into the maintenance of larger aircraft engines — specifically the CFM International CFM56. At the time, WestJet was servicing its CFM56 engines at various locations in the United States. After what Rempel described as “many happy coincidences,” WestJet turned to StandardAero in Winnipeg, thus developing a job-creating relationship that is still intact today.

“Because of that relationship, General Electric came to the table and today we have the largest engine test and research facility in Canada, right on our airfield,” he explained. “That’s how we’ve been able to leverage relationships and our land in a way that has really benefited the community, because now we have a very high tech facility, [and] lots of good paying engineering jobs, both at StandardAero as well as at the General Electric facility.”

That relationship continues to prove fruitful; Rempel explained that General Electric’s presence on the airport campus also plays into Winnipeg’s extensive cargo network.

“We want to make sure that the cargo carriers that are serving here are able to meet General Electric’s needs, whether it’s for an engine or whether it’s for a valve or whatever it happens to be. And it’s been through those sorts of building relationships, both with the carriers and potential tenants, that we’ve really been able to create basically 600 new jobs per year on the airport,” he explained.

With over 4,000 cargo flights every year, and more than 1,100 semi-trucks moving through the airport’s cargo areas, it’s easy to see how that side of the business factors into most of the WAA’s operations.

“Cargo operations are doing incredibly well,” continued Rempel. “Most of what we operate in and out of Winnipeg has nothing to do with the regular passenger carrier network. Vancouver or Toronto gets a lot of freight based on belly hold capacity. We’re almost an exclusively dedicated freighter operation and primarily all overnight because in large measure, the way people have changed their shopping habits — a lot more online — has really been a good base for solid growth of our overnight network here.”

A large part of that success is due to the airport’s location, smack dab in the middle of the country, and Rempel explained that, “it’s an easy place to have airplanes come in, exchange freight, and then head back out to other destinations.”

As the cargo ops have grown through the years, the WAA has had to expand to accommodate operators. The airport has incorporated a number of updates to its cargo facilities, and is planning to move forward with a new multi-tenant air cargo logistics facility, set to open in 2023/2024. The new centre will include a certified cold chain for meat handling, as well as pharmaceutical and nutraceutical handling capabilities. WAA has already secured agreements with a number of future occupants.

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This expansion isn’t limited to the cargo side. In 2018, Winnipeg International welcomed 4.5 million passengers, marking the fifth consecutive year of growth in this area and making it the seventh busiest in Canada for passenger movements. As it stands, the airport is equipped to handle five million passengers per year, and according to Rempel, these numbers have been a major area of focus for the WAA moving into the future.

“We really need to be thinking about what our future looks like,” he commented. “We’re sitting, right now, about four full years ahead of where we thought we’d be in terms of traffic growth when the terminal was built [in 2011].”

This has led the WAA to launch studies measuring the airport’s master plan against the actual amount of movement it sees. One study is focusing on cargo movements, another on the passenger terminal, and yet another on parking and ground transportation.

“That’s really all part of what we’re looking at, all of which is in continuing our business transformation plans that we’ve put out,” said Rempel. “So, by using technology [and] having the right people in the right place, we’re making sure that we’re not at any point ever constricting the flow of passengers or cargo, and are meeting carrier and passenger cargo, and people’s needs.”

Winnipeg International’s commitment to accommodating people’s needs has been a driving factor in its growth since the WAA took over. The airport’s mission statement, “With our community, we provide excellent airport services and facilities in a fiscally prudent manner,” seemingly holds serious weight throughout airport operations – a point made clear by that quaint, well-tended garden that grows food for local charities.

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