Abbotsford International trends ahead of pre-pandemic traffic


While plenty of uncertainty remains, Abbotsford will have more capacity in August than it did before the pandemic hit

A passenger boards a Flair Boeing 737 Max at Abbotsford International Airport August 3, 2021 (Brett Ballah).

Throwing off the shackles of the pandemic, officials at Abbotsford International revealed Tuesday they are trending ahead of 2019 traffic for the rest of the summer. There’s even an outside chance it will surpass 2019 passenger numbers. Ultra low-cost carriers are driving the growth.

“Parm (Sidhu, the airport General Manager) thinks will get to a million, I’m not so sure,” said Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun. The city owns and operates the airport. “He’s an optimist.”

The airport hit one million passengers for the first time in 2019, just before the pandemic hit. At that point, Westjet subsidiary Swoop was driving the growth, with domestic and international flights. The pandemic slashed passenger numbers at YXX to 330-thousand.

Now that recovery is at hand, Swoop is joined at Abbotsford by arch-rival Flair. The upstart carrier is flying six domestic services this month and plans flights to the United States in the fall. It will also base two aircraft in the Fraser Valley.

That’s what has Abbotsford posting rosy projections for the rest of the year. It is perhaps one of only two airports in Canada trending slightly ahead of pre-pandemic levels. The other is in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, which is also welcoming Flair flights for the first time.

Restarting from a long way back

It’s an astonishing proposition. Canada’s airports have reported a surge in passenger numbers this summer. But, they’re starting from so low, that’s not saying a lot. In data published July 29, Statistics Canada reported that in May, air passenger traffic was down 92.5% from pre-pandemic levels. Widespread vaccination has helped ease travel fears domestically. But international travel still remains severely depressed, with Canada set to open its border to fully vaccinated U.S. travellers next week.

The passenger waiting room in Abbotsford International Airport January 2019 (Brett Ballah).

Canada’s airports depend on passengers for the lion’s share of their revenues. So seeing passenger traffic collapse has decimated their income. As a result, airports are crying out for funding. To help ease the situation, the federal government has contributed tens of millions of dollars to passenger airports across the country.

Abbotsford, because of the way it’s structured, has not received a nickel. And that’s just fine by the mayor.

“We’re probably one of the only airports in Canada that didn’t lose money,” said Braun. “Why? Because we run a very lean and mean operation. We are the lowest, the lowest, operating platform in Canada. I’m told in North America, but I stick to Canada because I don’t know every airport in the U.S.. And it’s because of that, we adjusted very quickly to the changing conditions.”

The Abbotsford airport has a look that can best be described as utilitarian. The terminal building wouldn’t be out of place in a suburban office park. But it works, getting people through as quickly as possible for fees significantly lower than other nearby airports. And without charging an airport improvement fee. And that’s just the way the mayor likes it.

No grandiose ambitions

“This is a modest buildings find us,” said Braun, pointing to the terminal. “And we want to keep it that way. We don’t want to build the thousand square foot buildings and win all sorts of awards for this, that, and the other thing. We just want to provide an operating airport, where the airlines can operate on a new low cost structure, which allows the average person to do travelling that they otherwise couldn’t afford.”

It’s the kind of ethos that attracts low-cost operators.

“It’s fabulous to work with community like Abbotsford,” said Flair President and Chief Executive Officer Stephen Jones. “Everyone gets in behind it. You can actually start to get the community to help drive demand through their networks. Whether it’s the ethnic communities, whether it’s sports teams, you know, what is it that can actually unlock this this market.”

Abbotsford is happy playing its secondary role to Vancouver, 80 kilometres to the west. But locals don’t want to take a back seat to Bellingham, 50 km to the south in Washington State.

Flair chief executive Stephen Jones speaks at Abbotsford International Airport August 3, 2021.

Kick the Bellingham habit

Southwest Airlines announced service to Bellingham, specifically targeting the Vancouver market.

“Following the reopening of the Canadian border, we expect a return of the value-minded travelers who already drive to this alternative airport to escape high fares and taxes—and that’s very, very typical for Southwest destinations,” the company said in a statement in March. “Southwest provides a great value for them.”

“Certainly we as a ULCC and working with a low cost airport like Abbotsford, there is no reason to drive across the border go through the hassle and all the other troubles,” said Swoop chief executive Charles Duncan in an interview in May. He’s “You know that we will be cost competitive for Abbotsford versus schlepping down to Bellingham and dealing with all the trouble of the border crossing and all those hassles.”

Henry Braun shares that ambition. His airport has low fees. The ULCCs are keeping fares down. Now he wants to tackle user fees elsewhere in the system.

“What we’re working on now is a federal government because we’ve done our bit,” he said. “But the federal government needs to be careful the fees that they’re charging because it looks like $65-$70 A ticket. Whereas in Bellingham, they don’t have that problem.”

Ultimately, whether people continue to fly will depend heavily on COVID-19 and vaccination rates.

“I want to see more Washington State plates here,” said Braun, who has flown from Bellingham in the past. “Sometimes they had a more convenient flight and it was quicker to go there than to Vancouver. I would say three quarters, parking lot was busy place. I want to flip that around.”

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