Are Canadian airports hurting themselves?

There can be no doubt that, when it comes to competing with airports in the United States, Canadian airports are behind the proverbial eight-ball.

Canadian airports get no subsidies from the federal government – they have to pay for every improvement – airport authorities even have to pay rent to Ottawa.

But you have to wonder if airports aren’t also shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to attracting cost-conscious passengers.

A new report in the Vancouver Sun Monday morning, gives interesting insight into the challenges border airports face.

It suggests millions of Canadians are voting with their feet; choosing to drive to American airports, rather than face the high fares charged to fly out of facilities north of the border.

At YVR, that total is 950,000 passengers each year.

The reason? Families can pay hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars less to fly from Bellingham or Seattle. Even I’m doing it later this summer, the two of us choosing to fly from Seattle to save about $400 on flights to New Mexico, even after you factor in gas and parking.

Here’s where Canadian airports don’t help themselves.

The major western airports are spending billions to build beautiful new facilities:

– Winnipeg opened a $585 million new terminal last year;

– Edmonton opened a major terminal expansion which cost in the range of $750 million;

– Calgary is in the midst of a $1.4 billion terminal expansion and runway addition;

– Vancouver is at the beginning of a $1.8 billion redevelopment and expansion.

That’s $4 billion on airports in about a decade.

What’s the common thread? They’re all beautiful developments, aesthetically pleasing, architecturally superb, but expensive.

To pay for it, airports charge “improvement fees” which range around $20 – a cost that’s tacked on to airline ticket prices, and there’s no end in sight.

Don’t forget, you also pay landing fees… an expense you don’t see but increases the cost of your ticket.

And while there have been improvements in recent years – Vancouver, for example, has frozen landing fees for the next three years – you have to wonder if airport managers don’t see passengers as cash cows to fund their grandiose dreams.

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