Abbotsford International Airport: Vancouver’s “third” runway

Airline check-in counters at Abbotsford International Airport. (all photos: Brett Ballah)

Only 80 km separate Vancouver International Airport from Abbotsford International Airport, yet they could just as easily be worlds apart. One, an international hub, serving prestigious airlines and well-heeled passengers from around the world. The other – Abbotsford – taking a decidedly low-key approach to passenger service, concentrating on budget-conscious travellers headed to visit friends and family, or heading on holiday to warmer destinations. And that difference suits the people who run YXX just fine.

“This is really Vancouver’s third runway,” said Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun, referring to the increasingly congested Vancouver International Airport. Long-term plans call for an additional runway at YVR, but the options are all expensive, and will likely raise objections from environmentalists and local residents.

But in Abbotsford, there is room to grow, and the city council – which bought the airport from the federal government for $10 in 1997 – recently opened a $5 million expansion of the terminal building. Officials expect to hit 1 million passengers in 2019 for the first time, and their ambition is to host 10% of the region’s passengers within a decade.

The key, said Braun, is to focus on keeping costs low for airlines, and thinking outside the box. “We don’t sell land, but we lease it to people who want to invest. We have 320 acres of raspberries, that we lease out, we are actually the largest raspberry grower, I think, in Abbotsford.”

A Swoop 737-800NG departs Abbotsford International Airport for Edmonton. Swoop is the largest carrier at Abbotsford.

Ultra low-cost carrier Swoop has made its West Coast home in Abbotsford, shunning the region’s much larger airport in Vancouver.

Swoop serves destinations in Canada, the United States and Mexico from here, and is adding domestic services in its summer schedule. Swoop is also looking at Abbotsford as a future crew base, in addition to Hamilton, Ontario and Edmonton. The reason? Operating in Abbotsford is “cheap.”

“Everyone sort of talks about Airport Improvement Fees,” said Swoop President Steven Greenway (Abbotsford does not charge AIFs). “It’s the other nuances that people don’t really consider. I don’t know if you saw our plane land, but within two seconds it was basically on the stand.

“If you’re in Toronto and you’re taxiing, it takes sometimes 20-30 minutes to get to your stand. So you’re burning fuel, you’re burning crew time, all of that stuff is expensive.”

Abbotsford has gone a long way to reducing other costs as well. Airport terminal staff also work airside, and many are cross-trained as fire rescue crews in the event of a crash. As well, baggage systems are kept simple, with one ground handling company serving the majority of flights.

Ground crews are cross-trained to use the airport’s two modern rescue-firefighting trucks.
A box arrives in the baggage hall for a departing flight at Abbotsford International Airport.

Abbotsford airport was opened by the Royal Canadian Air Force as a training facility in 1943, at the height of the Second World War. Indeed, it still retains the triangular runway layout popular at the time. In the early years after the war, the airport languished, even closing between 1953 and 1958, open only to drag racers.

Over the years, airlines came to see the airfield’s value, serving first as a diversion airport when Vancouver International got fogged in, then as a general aviation and aerial forest fire fighting base. Conair still operates water bombers from Abbotsford, and is the airport’s largest general aviation tenant.

But it wasn’t until June 18, 1997 that YXX entered the jet age, when a Westjet flight from Calgary touched down for the very first time, ushering in a new golden age for the airport. Today, Westjet and its subsidiary Swoop dominate traffic at YXX, with ultra low-cost airline Flair offering flights to Edmonton and Calgary, and Air Canada Rouge serving the city during the peak summer travel season.

Work is under way to widen the road leading to Abbotsford International Airport. Opening is slated for November 2019.

Significant challenges remain for the airport to realize its growth ambitions. Access to YXX is difficult – travellers have little choice but to drive, and a narrow two-lane road is all that links the airport to the surrounding region. On top of that, for an airport catering to price-sensitive travellers, there is only limited bus service.

There is talk of the need to improve public transportation, perhaps even a form of rapid transit, but no concrete plans. As for driving, the roadway from the region’s only freeway to the airport is being twinned, which should help. But even then, once divers reach the freeway, traffic frequently gets backed up, particularly headed to Vancouver.

“We can’t really do anything until that freeway gets widened,” said Abbotsford mayor Braun. “You know, on a 2-lane freeway and there’s an accident and everybody’s stuck, guess what? So are the transit buses.”

To reach its aviation ambitions Abbotsford will need the help of higher levels of government to fund major roadway improvements, and the ongoing support and appreciation of the travelling public to make it all worthwhile.