Abbotsford airport expansion attracts ultra-low-cost carriers

‘Secondary airports’ offer cheaper, less congested option in Metro Vancouver

Abbotsford International Airport’s late-January launch of its $5-million terminal expansion is enabling airline executives to breathe easier, as they take steps to ramp up flights out of Metro Vancouver’s eastern airport.

Swoop president Steven Greenway, for example, called the terminal expansion perfect timing, given that his seven-month-old airline plans to make Abbotsford its third hub in Canada, as a base for planes and for staff. The airline flies out of Abbotsford to the Canadian destinations of Edmonton, Winnipeg, Hamilton and London. International flights out of Abbotsford are to Las Vegas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta.

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The City of Abbotsford-owned airport’s 14,000-square-foot expansion makes its terminal building 80,000 square feet. The number of seats past security has doubled to 600 from 300, and there are two additional gates, for a total of five.

Greenway said he expects his WestJet Airlines Ltd. subsidiary will hire 90 employees to crew two planes that will be based out of Abbotsford by the end of 2019. Swoop now has six planes that are based out of Hamilton and Edmonton. By year-end, the airline is set to have a total of 10 planes.

The secret to its success is flying out of what he called “secondary airports,” which are smaller than major airports and have lower fees. Unlike Vancouver International Airport, Abbotsford has no airport improvement fee, and it has more affordable landing and terminal fees.

For Greenway, there is even more to like about Abbotsford.

“It’s a whole heap of stuff that adds up in lower costs and efficiencies,” he said.

He estimated that planes at major airports take 10 to 15 minutes to taxi to the gate after landing. At Abbotsford, he estimated, the time is closer to two minutes. That means less fuel is burned and there is less wear and tear on planes.

“[Secondary] airports are not so congested, so you’re not having to line up behind 10 other aircraft to take off,” he told Business in Vancouver. “You go straight to the runway and take off.”

WestJet, Air Canada’s Air Canada Rouge subsidiary and Flair Air are the four airlines that service Abbotsford’s airport.

With Swoop and Flair Air being ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs), the lower fees are particularly important, because those carriers’ niche is to offer passengers the lowest possible base fare.

Several Swoop flights in February to Edmonton, for example, are $9 including tax. Passengers pay extra for any baggage, seat selection or meals.

Vancouver-based ULCC Canada Jetlines has been readying to take flight for years and plans to fly out of Abbotsford instead of Vancouver. Spokeswoman Jennifer Paterson told BIV last week that the airline expects to get its first two planes by mid-year, and it will launch soon afterward.

Greenway is not worried about the competition.

“For me, they’ll become serious when they launch,” he said. “Until they actually start flying, it is a moot point for me.”

Abbotsford International Airport general manager Parm Sidhu said the rise of ULCCs helped his airport’s passenger counts soar 27.7 per cent to 677,653 in 2017 and 24.3 per cent to 842,212 in 2018.

He expects that 2019 will be the first year the airport will welcome more than one million passengers.

Executives at the Vancouver Airport Authority (VAA), which runs Vancouver International Airport, are not concerned about losing business.

“Abbotsford provides a great choice for point-to-point service for passengers travelling into, and out of, the Fraser Valley,” the VAA said in a statement to BIV.

“[Vancouver International Airport] provides a different service, serving as a major international hub, with 56 airlines serving 127 non-stop destinations around the world.”

2018 was the first year that Vancouver International Airport welcomed more than 25 million passengers, and that was two years ahead of the VAA’s goal to reach that plateau. It now expects that by 2020 the airport will welcome 29 million passengers.


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