Canadian airports and cities

Kingston Airport seeks airline partner

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Stung by the loss of passenger service, Kingston, Ontario Airport gets active in its search for a new airline partner

All options are in the table as Eastern Ontario city looks for links to major hubs

Kingston Airport was served by Air Canada Dash 8-300 aircraft until the airline pulled service from the Ontario city in April 2020 (Brett Ballah).

Lonely airport, recently expanded terminal, 6,000 foot runway like new, seeks airline for possible long-term relationship. Serious inquiries only, please.

Stung by the loss of its only passenger service in March, Kinston, Ontario’s airport is getting serious in its search for a new airline partner. Rather than waiting for business to come to it, the airport is actively courting new airline service. It has issued a Request for Information, outlining the city’s intention to renew its air service.

“We have lost our main carrier,” said Aron Winterstein, Kingston’s airport manager. “But that has created opportunities for us to create new partnerships and hopefully expand on the previous services that we had.”

COVID reality

Kingston is a historic city of 136,000 people nestled on the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Home to Queen’s University and the Royal Military College, the city boasts national and international connections far larger than its population would suggest.

Last year, the local airport handled a little more than 88,000 passengers. Almost all of them were aboard Air Canada flights to Toronto-Pearson, a short hop from Kingston. In reality, Canada’s largest carrier was the only game in town.

But that doesn’t mean the locals were in love with the service.

“Issues with regular cancellations and problems with mis-connecting baggage has raised concerns about service and reliability in the local community and this, alongside the obvious impact of the COVID pandemic, has frustrated local demand,” reads a city document.

When COVID hit, Air Canada pulled out. At first, the airline merely suspended service to Kingston in March. Then in April, the temporary suspension became indefinite. That left Kingston Airport a lonely place.

“All of our commercial services basically dried up at that time,” said Winterstein.

An all-too-common predicament

Because of COVID, a number of Canadian communities are without air service… or facing the prospect of losing their lifelines. In July, Air Canada dropped 30 routes and eight cities from its network. It has threatened to cancel another 95 services, unless the government steps up with help for Canada’s beleaguered carriers.

Westjet, has made similar cuts to routes in Atlantic Canada.

In January, Saint John, New Brunswick and Sydney, Nova Scotia join the list of Canadian destinations without air service.

Sydney, population just under 94,000, has turned to the federal government for help.

“Desperate and unapologetic, we call on your government’s support today to find a solution so we can quickly reverse this catastrophic decision,” said Kathleen Yurchesyn in a video sent to the Prime Minister and a number of federal cabinet ministers. Yurchesyn is the Chief Executive Officer of the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce, which includes Sydney Airport.

The community has also launched a petition calling for government aid for the airline industry. By Wednesday night, it had garnered more than 4,000 signatures.

It’s hard to compare Kingston to any other airport in Canada. No other city of comparable size is so close to not one but two major international airports. Kingston is just over two-and-a-half hours by car to Pearson, and about three hours to Montreal. The airport estimates up to 71% of its local passengers – 740,000 people – drive elsewhere to catch a plane.

Comparable challenges

There are, however, lessons to be learned from experiences in the United States.

Faced with a similar predicament in 2013, the business community of Fort Wayne, Indiana made a bold bet. The city is about twice Kingston’s size, but faced a similar challenge. Airlines, as they looked to maximize revenues, were dropping service to cities like Fort Wayne.

Locally, people are willing to travel two hours to the far larger airport in Indianapolis to catch a flight. On top of that, Fort Wayne is about three hours by car to two major international airports in Detroit and Chicago.

“Time is money, money is time,” said Fort Wayne airport Executive Director Scott Hinderman in an interview. “If you fly for business, you’re probably flying local. If you’re flying to go on vacation with three kids and your wife, you may very well go to Indy.”

Faced with the reality that airlines will go where there’s money to be made, the local Chamber of Commerce made a deal for more air service. You fly here, and we’ll guarantee minimum $2 million in annual revenues.

“The community probably has to have skin in the game,” said Hinderman. “The airport is not going to survive by the great deeds that I do. We do not fly every day.”

He says the community has to have some skin in the game. The results were dramatic. In just two years, while similar-sized airports saw service declines, American Airlines launched two new routes, United added flights to Chicago, and Delta flew larger aircraft into the community. Last year, the airport handled just shy of 800,000 passengers.

“If you do some really neat thing to bring an airline or a route to your community,” he said, “and the community doesn’t get on the aircraft, how long do you think the route’s going to last?”

Skin in the game

Having some skin in the game is exactly what Winterstein has in mind as the Kingston airport looks for a new airline partner.

“We are definitely open to negotiating with airlines, and incentives would be part of the package,” he said. That could include, for instance, exclusivity clauses with air carriers. “We are willing to negotiate an incentive programme that’s attractive for both the airline and the airport.”

Airline incentives are still a rare but growing feature in Canada. In August 2019, as Regina looked to attract new service to a U.S. hub, airlines asked for help “seven figures in nature.” This summer, as it tried to emerge from the depths of the pandemic, ultra low-cost carrier Swoop issued a call for new airport partners to build air service. More than 70 facilities responded.

Kingston Airport is using its Request for Information to gauge who might be out there as an airline partner and what they might want.

“We first did an RFI to find out who would be interested in picking up the services that Air Canada used to offer,” said Winterstein. “We have a very robust community here that supports the air service. Even in a typical downturn, we would be very steady.”

Just days after the RFI was issued, Winterstein was already fielding calls from potential suitors. “I think that airlines are also looking for partners in these times. So I think that now the vaccines are out there, I think the timing is just right to make sure that the air community knows that we’re open for business.”

So far, Winterstein said Air Canada is not among the airlines reaching out to him.

What does Kingston Airport want in an airline partner?

A view of Kingston, Ontario’s runway expansion in 2018 (Kingston Airport).

Incentives are on the table and the airport’s open for business. The airport has a sexy new terminal, and longer runways to welcome bigger aircraft.

So, as in any courtship, the question invariably becomes ‘what are you looking for?’

Kingston, it has to be said, isn’t aiming for the moon.

“We are looking for an air service to provide connections for people that are going east of the city. So that could be Montreal, Halifax, and Europe,” said Winterstein. “And then we want to have a connecting airport to the west of us. Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver. The intent of the ask is to have a couple of connecting airports. With our legacy carrier prior, we had service to Toronto-Pearson. With our new partner we are looking to expand our services so we have multiple connecting airports for Kingston.”

Ideally, the new carrier will have planes that can seat between 20 and 50 people, a size that can offer enough frequency to suit business travellers.

“A route load factor of 78% was achieved in 2019 compared to the slightly higher 82% a year earlier and with an average yield of US$292 one-way the route represents an attractive opportunity if operated correctly,” reads the city’s RFI.

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So, two Canadian airports, two dramatically different approaches to survival. ‘Desperate and unapologetic’ meets ‘open for business.’

Kingston’s RFI closes January 6. The airport is aiming for a service re-start between April and June.

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