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Fly away -- but do it here

Airport boss seeks to stem flow to U.S.

Winnipeg's Richardson International Airport (above) is losing travellers to Hector International Airport in Fargo.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Winnipeg's Richardson International Airport (above) is losing travellers to Hector International Airport in Fargo.

Winnipeg's airport boss has his eyes on the quarter-million Manitobans who choose to fly out of U.S. airports.

Hector International Airport in Fargo.

Enlarge Image

Hector International Airport in Fargo. (DAVE WALLIS / THE FORUM)

Barry Rempel, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Airports Authority, said an average of 250,000 people per year from southern Manitoba -- the WAA's catchment area -- choose to fly out of Grand Forks, Fargo, Minot or Minneapolis rather than Winnipeg's Richardson International Airport.

Rempel spoke at the WAA's annual meeting at the Winnipeg Art Gallery Wednesday.

In addition to meeting with communities such as Brandon and Carman to inform local residents about the WAA's services, Rempel said he and other heads of Canadian airport authorities are pushing for regulatory changes governing their expenses.

The cost structures of all airports are relatively similar, but U.S. airports have a significant advantage due to federal government policies on security. Transportation security charges of $25 to $35 per ticket were implemented as a result of the 2001 terror attacks. In the U.S., that's paid for by the federal government, but in Canada it's paid for by travellers.

"It's a fundamental difference. Canada is a user-pay system while the U.S. is tax-funded," he said.

"We're not bemoaning the fact people are choosing (to fly out of other airports). We have a reality that we have to deal with."

If the WAA can improve the situation at Richardson International to convince 80 per cent of them to fly out of Winnipeg, it would be a boon of more than $6 million to its bottom line. Each passenger spends $25 on the airport improvement fee (AIF) and studies show a further $7 on average is spent at various retailers.

That would likely mean the addition of five to six flights per day to destinations such as Las Vegas, Orlando and Phoenix, as well as a number of jobs, he said.

Rempel's lobbying doesn't end there. He is also on a mission to restructure the rent airports pay to the federal government. Even though the WAA has replaced the terminal building and built new runways in the past few years, it still pays $6.4 million in rent annually.

"Frankly, the rent should be zero. The government does nothing for it. If you were renting something from me, I'd be offering you a service in return. It's a tax grab that comes directly out of the pockets of travellers," he said.

The phenomenon of losing passengers to other airports is called "airport leakage" and it happens in many places in Canada, said David Duval, director of the University of Manitoba's Transport Institute.

And, in the short term, there's not a lot the Winnipeg airport can do to woo back travellers for whom price is the driver.

Echoing Rempel, Duval said Canada's federal regulatory structure, including the ground rents that go to Ottawa, make Canadian airports less competitive than U.S. ones. Because of that, it's unlikely carriers such as Allegiant will ever expand to Winnipeg, saving travellers the drive to Grand Forks.

"It's time for us to really have a careful look at our national air transport strategy," he said.

Meantime, Rempel sees a day when travellers will step off their flights at Richardson International Airport and take light rapid transit to get downtown. Rempel doesn't have a timetable for such a momentous move but it's on his radar.

"What type of personal rapid transit and when, I can't answer that," he said. "But we need to find a way to up our game from how we move people from the airport to other parts of the city, specifically downtown."

His inspiration is the nearly five-year-old Canada Line in Vancouver, which connects the city's waterfront in the north and Richmond to the south to the airport in the southwest. Its "SkyTrains" carry more than 135,000 people every day.

"The impression people have of the city (because) they're not sitting on Granville Street (is improved). It's clean, efficient, modern and environmentally friendly," he said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

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