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At 9:11 in the morning on June 10, 2016, Air Canada flight 8371 from Calgary touched down at Fort McMurray International Airport–the first commercial flight to arrive since the previous May 4, when commercial operations were suspended after wildfires neared Airport Road south of the municipality.
Airport damage was relatively limited; miraculously, the new terminal was spared.
“The fire approached the airport both from the north and the south sides, basically paralleling the runway,” explained RJ Steenstra, president and CEO of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority.
Ignited by blowing sparks, the airport lost its old administration building, a trade shop and, ironically, the fire hall–which went up when crews and vehicles were out protecting the fuel farm. “And adjacent to that we lost the airport hotel, the Nova Hotel.”
Physical rebuilding is well advanced. Steenstra says the trade shop and the fire hall are completed and operational now, and the administration building is expected to be complete by June.
“The hotel is still a question mark as to whether it will be rebuilt or not,” he said. “It is owned by another party but we are a partner. We are working with them to see how that comes together.”
But rebuilding the airport’s business is another story.
“We are seeing some volatility in terms of our overall passenger numbers and that’s not entirely due to the fire; more due to a slow Alberta economy,” said Steenstra. “Oil activity is still not back to where it was in 2014 or 2015, and we don’t expect that it is going to get back to that level.”
Last year commercial airline traffic–passenger numbers–dropped about 23 per cent over 2015. And that’s discounting the nearly six-week commercial shutdown; including that effect, passenger count was down about 32 per cent year over year. And “we haven’t hit a true baseline from which we can climb out,” noted Steenstra. “Some months are better than others, but we haven’t seen it even out yet. It’s quite difficult actually, at this time.”
However, efforts to improve the situation are underway. “We are certainly looking to try and regain a U.S. service,” he said. “But that takes a long time to re-engage and restart.” The airport authority is in discussions with some ultra low-cost carrier airlines, too, to attract them to Fort McMurray.
Success depends on a number of factors. “We are hoping 2017 will baseline out from a population standpoint and see some activity through the rebuild of the city,” he said. “Right now, only 15 per cent of the homes and businesses damaged or destroyed have been replaced. We have a long way to go from that standpoint.”
When does he expect things to return to normal?
“I don’t think we are going back to where we were before,” he said. “We’ve just had a reset. I think it is really going to be a new normal.”