At about 12:50 p.m. this afternoon, a WestJet turboprop plane will touch down at the Brandon Municipal Airport — the first official run of the company’s new Encore service for Brandon.
Half an hour after the plane lands, several dozen individuals who managed to secure seats on the plane will be part of the inaugural flight between Brandon and Calgary.
For those of us in western Manitoba who have waited years for the return of regular commercial air passenger service to the Wheat City, today will be a day of celebration. Indeed, city hall has decided to throw a party to mark the first official touchdown starting at 11:30 a.m. — free hotdogs and museum tours for all.
And we should celebrate. Thanks to the hard work of several individuals at city hall, elected officials at the federal, provincial and municipal levels and persistant lobbying by many people in Westman, Brandon has been given back a certain level of dignity that it lost when regular passenger air service ended in this city.
As you can read in our air service timeline, published in today’s Sun, from 1981 to 1989, the Brandon airport was the site of regular jet service supplied by Pacific Western Airlines, which flew about 35,000 passengers per year from here to Toronto and Calgary.
When Pacific became part of Canadian Airlines, air service continued in Brandon, but under smaller turbo-prop service. As of March 2000, Brandon received limited passenger and carrier service from Athabaska Airways, which flew in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and to Edmonton, and Perimeter Airlines, which connected with Winnipeg and Dauphin.
In the hope of luring WestJet to the airport after the company conducted two trial periods out of McGill Field between 1999 and 2000, the city spent $3 million to renovate the airport facilities, receiving a $2.6-million federal grant to pave 1,500 metres of runway.
But after the World Trade Center towers were destroyed by terrorists in the fall of 2001, the airline industry was sent spinning in disarray, and Brandon’s hope for regular passenger service seemed to die with it.
For years after, the city and its airport lurched forward one step and fell back a few as talks with WestJet and ZIP amounted to little more than pie-in-the-sky ambitions.
Throughout it all, however, there were signs that people hadn’t completely lost hope or lost sight of the target. The multi-year push to fund and build an Instrument Landing System at the airport was hugely important for landing commercial air service in this city.
And throughout Westman, there were voices calling for the resumption of this kind of air service over the years — among them, the late Art Peters of Boissevain, a pilot who spearheaded a petition calling for upgrades to the Brandon airport. As an aside, we still believe that Brandon’s Municipal Airport could honour Peters in some way —even a simple plaque hung in the building to commemorate Peters’ efforts.
People like Peters helped keep interest and opportunity alive among the public, while politicians worked behind the scenes to try to make it happen.
Certainly, WestJet would not have decided to start landing its new Encore service in Brandon had this city and region not offered a financial opportunity for the company. But the efforts of everyone involved made today possible.
Yet while we celebrate the day, we offer a caution to the people of Westman. The airline business being what it is, WestJet has to find business profitable for the service to continue in our corner of the planet. The history of air service in this city has proven that time and again.
In other words, if you don’t use it, we’ll lose it — so let’s get busy flying.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 3, 2013