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Abbotsford and Hamilton play relatively minor roles in the airport industry when compared with much larger terminals in their respective regions. But as the population surges in Metro Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area, airports in Abbotsford and Hamilton are positioned to experience strong passenger growth.
Parm Sidhu, general manager at Abbotsford International Airport, said his primary target market remains British Columbia residents who live reasonably close to Abbotsford, including travellers from communities such as Surrey, Langley and Chilliwack.
It can take 60 minutes to drive from downtown Vancouver to Abbotsford during non-peak times, though it’s closer to 90 minutes during rush hour.
“As the population grows in the Lower Fraser Valley and if you’re going within Canada, you’re a hop and skip away from our airport,” said Sidhu, who notes that the Abbotsford terminal had a record year for passenger traffic in 2016.
The arrival of NewLeaf Travel Co. in Abbotsford and John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport last July provided a boost to each market. NewLeaf is a ticket reseller that hires Flair Airlines Ltd. to operate flights.
NewLeaf is a small startup with access to only three planes operating and two backups, but its emergence has already spurred Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd. to take notice.
In January, for instance, WestJet launched service between Winnipeg and Hamilton.
The Consumers’ Association of Canada issued a travel alert in February, claiming that NewLeaf has made “arbitrary cancellations and alterations.” But Jim Young, chief executive officer at NewLeaf, believes the stars are finally lining up for Abbotsford and Hamilton to play increasingly important roles in their respective aviation markets.
Moncton, N.B., and Kelowna, B.C., are also part of NewLeaf’s current winter network, though they have been excluded from the schedule from May 1 to mid-September. Year-round destinations on the ultra low-cost carrier’s route map are Abbotsford, Hamilton, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Halifax.
“If NewLeaf is stimulating the low end of the market so to speak–those customers who won’t fly because the price is too high–what happens is there is a knock-on effect for the other carriers. You may choose to decide to fly with us one-way and go back with somebody else,” said Young in an interview.
Vancouver International Airport handled 22.3 million passengers last year, dwarfing the 530,643 people who went through Abbotsford.
Toronto’s Pearson International Airport is handling more than 100 times the number of passengers who pass through Hamilton’s terminal.
In 2016, Pearson processed more than 44 million passengers, up from 41 million the previous year.
Hamilton’s traffic grew last year, compared with the nearly 313,000 air travellers who used the Ontario airport in 2015.
“Hamilton is an ideal market for an ultra low-cost carrier like NewLeaf. The local population base is already one million people, which wasn’t being served adequately,” said Hamilton airport president Vijay Bathija. “Lower fares are definitely attracting new travellers, and that is part of the growth that Hamilton has seen.”
Besides NewLeaf, other firms providing service out of Hamilton include WestJet, Air Canada, Air Transat and Sunwing Travel Group.
NewLeaf, WestJet and Island Express Air fly out of Abbotsford, while Air Canada Rouge provides seasonal summer service between Abbotsford and Pearson airport.
Hamilton and Abbotsford have seen their share of passenger ups and downs over the years.
WestJet added Hamilton to its route network in 2000. But the Calgary-based carrier shifted its eastern hub from Hamilton to Pearson in 2004, sharply reducing its Hamilton presence. At its peak, the Hamilton airport handled more than one million passengers in 2003.
Air Canada, through its Jazz affiliate, withdrew from Hamilton in 2008. Last May, however, Air Canada returned to the Ontario city by offering flights between Hamilton and Montreal.
Abbotsford saw Jetsgo Corp. arrive in 2004, but the discounter folded in March 2005.
Young said Canada’s aviation history is littered with carriers who tried, but failed, to carve a niche with lower fares.
Discount carriers in Europe and the United States have the advantage of greater population density and shorter stage lengths for flights than in Canada, he said.
“For Canada, you’ve got a long thin line of geography that goes out all the way from Victoria to St. John’s. So you have to find ways in which to schedule your aircraft in a more efficient way,” said Young, adding that NewLeaf crews go back to their home base the same day.
Vancouver Airport Authority CEO Craig Richmond said the Abbotsford terminal is well positioned to thrive, even though Vancouver International Airport, also known as YVR, remains dominant in the region.
“We’re going to add another million people in the Lower Mainland in the next 20 years, and a lot of those will be out towards Abbotsford. They will naturally grow, but we still have a lot of room to grow at YVR,” said Richmond. “We wish Abbotsford all the best.”
There are important differences today versus 2002, when Jetsgo launched flights–only to last less than three years, industry observers say. Fifteen years ago, Air Canada and WestJet still offered bundled fares that included seat selection and free bags. But consumers now have much greater access to comparing ticket prices online themselves and deciding whether it is worthwhile flying from Abbotsford instead of YVR and Hamilton instead of Pearson.