With Yellowknife’s aging airport set for a major upgrade, members of the Legislative Assembly are questioning the merits of expanding the current facility rather than improving existing services.
MLAs put questions to officials with the Department of Infrastructure during a meeting of the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Economic Development and Environment on March 31.
The airport was built in 1967 and upgraded in 1998 and 2005.
Several steps of the upgrade are already complete, including a 20-year master plan that was drafted 2018 and a market and economic analysis that was conducted in 2019.
Gary Brennan, the Department of Infrastructure’s assistant deputy minister of regional operations, presented five options for the future of the airport, depending on whether the facility would be developed to the north, east or south or over top of the existing facility, and whether the new facility would include retail options.
Brennan also presented comments the department had received from stakeholders. These included concerns about the lack of costing for each option; questions about the future availability of services like boarding bridges and parking; and misgivings about the GNWT potentially competing with the City of Yellowknife and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation for commercial tenants.
Several committee members echoed these concerns: Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson questioned the wisdom of the airport competing with other retail and accommodations businesses in the area.
“It seems like a weird area that we would want to develop,” he said.
Brennan responded that investing in non-aeronautical sources of revenue is a growing trend in the airline industry, and one that would provide more stable sources of revenue during an uncertain time.
“Having more non-aeronautical revenues would stabilize the business of the airport,” he said.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly questioned whether customers really wanted an expanded airport.
“I think what the public wants, as I understand it, is better customer experience when you go to airport,” he said. “They want bridges, they want less waiting time, maybe a little bit better quality food, nicer seating, more space. That’s what they want, and that’s not what this delivers… I just want you guys to start spending money to improve the customer experience.”
YZF regional airport manager Randy Straker responded that facility upgrades are now long overdue thanks to years of the airport having to compete for capital funds.
“An airport is only as good as the runways,” he said. “We can put all the comforts and everything into the terminal building, but if we can’t fly aircraft or we can’t land aircraft, it doesn’t do much for the public.”
Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland said it’s important to know how the cost of each option would impact the costs for passengers to use the airport. Brennan replied that the intent is to not pass any additional costs onto passengers, although he acknowledged that in cases where additional costs are passed on to the airlines, those costs could then be passed on to the passengers by those carriers.
Cleveland also asked if there is a plan to start allowing international carriers to use Yellowknife Airport, turning it into a proper international airport.
“I think that knowing what our future holds is a key part of knowing what we need as far as space out at the airport,” she said.
Brennan responded that there were several obstacles to making this happen, including a lack of Canadian Border Security agents at the airport and a lack of proper screening tools.
The next steps for the project include a technical review of the five options, an online public consultation during the month of April and a consolidated master plan.