The Nanaimo Airport has seen tremendous growth year after year over the past decade. Each year, the airport breaks a new record for passenger traffic. The airport recorded 435,000 passengers in 2018.
Passenger traffic projections done by SNC Lavalin indicated that the Nanaimo airport would not surpass 500,000 passengers until 2026, however airport CEO Mike Hooper believes the airport is on track to meet that target in 2019.
“A lot of airports have grown 30, 50, 60, percent in the last 10 years. We’ve grown over 200 percent,” Hooper said.
To accommodate this growth, the airport is expanding. The airport has a buildout plan that will take place in phases over a 20 year period. Each phase will be completed with minimal disruption to passengers, and once completed, will appear as if all work was done at the same time.
The most visible piece of expansion to date is the new boarding lounge that increases the number of seats from 140 to 320. The boarding lounge can be further expanded to meet future demand. There will be food service on airside, however Hooper did not confirm what kind of restaurant there would be, or when it would open.
The airport’s current project is expanding the security area to increase capacity from 100 people an hour to 1000 people an hour. The security upgrade is expected to be completed by January.
Nanaimo Airport flies non-stop to Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto. The Toronto route is the newest of the three. Hooper said the Toronto flight has proven popular, and thinks the route will expand to a year-round route in the future.
Hooper said that the airport will never deliver directly to Europe or Asia, but with their current runway, the airport can deliver directly to Hawaii, Panama, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
“It’s really a matter of when the population gets big enough that the air carriers put those nonstop flights in,” Hooper said.
Hooper said that the Nanaimo Airport is in the best location to meet the future growth of Vancouver Island. Last year the airport surpassed the Comox Airport in passenger numbers. Hooper believes the Nanaimo Airport may meet or even surpass the Victoria Airport in the future. This is because the Victoria Airport is limited in growth by the Malahat and its proximity to the ocean.
Air travel is challenging for any airport in the winter. The Nanaimo Airport has been hit by heavy snowfall over the past few years. The airport was not caught off guard by the weather, as they installed an instrumental landing system and high intensity lights eight years ago. That technology has made the airport 99.2 percent reliable for weather.
“This year there was fog on the coast. A flight took off from Victoria to go to Vancouver. Vancouver was closed because of the fog going in there. We were open, so they flew into Nanaimo, waited until Vancouver opened up, then went to Vancouver,” Hooper said.
The airport has purchased additional snow removal equipment. Hooper said that most often, Nanaimo flights are held up because of weather impacts in other parts of the country. Nanaimo’s weather readiness attracted West Jet to service the area, and led to Air Canada’s service to Toronto.
“The air carriers love to see what we’ve done in Nanaimo. They’ve been very supportive, they appreciate what we’re doing, and it’s why they’re coming in with additional services,” Hooper said.
The airport is not just investing in pieces directly related to the airport. Over the past eight years, the airport has invested in improving the safety of the highway intersection in front of the airport. Hooper said that when he began at the airport in 2006, there was no traffic light on the intersection, so drivers would “dart out” when they thought it was safe.
In partnership with B.C. Highways, the airport paid a third of the cost for the lights to go in at the intersection in 2007. Since then, they’ve continued the partnership to extend the deceleration and acceleration lanes. The airport has asked highways to put in a full controlled left turn signal for southbound traffic to turn in to the airport. That is expected to be in place in early 2020.
Once vehicles safely arrive at the airport, the have to park. To alleviate the stress of finding a parking spot, the airport has utilized an app called Honk. App users can go online and pay for their parking through the app, and book their parking spaces.
Beyond the airport, Hooper said they are looking to develop the surrounding area with a hotel, restaurants, a gas station, and aviation related businesses. The airport reached out to several regional partners to come up with the plan in 2018.
“We have a solid foundation for growth on passenger service, on aerospace development, on cargo development, on ground side developments. We have a fabulous foundation we’ve built with revenues coming in that help us now move forward on these initiatives,” Hooper said.
The Nanaimo airport provides 2,700 jobs direct and indirect. Hooper estimates a $480 million economic impact to the region. All signs point towards future growth, and likely an increased amount of jobs, as well as an increased economic impact.