Eyes on the skies

Photo submitted by City of Prince Albert.

Prince Albert city councillors will be debating the creation of new airport authority by the end of the year, however not having one now has put one project temporarily on hold.

Council voted by a 7-2 margin to scrap funding for a new air terminal conceptual design to replace the current building at the Prince Albert Airport.

Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski was the most vocal opponent of the design, which would have cost $100,000 out of the Passenger Facility Fee Reserve. He said he’s not necessarily opposed to the decision. He’s just worried the city is putting the cart before the horse.

“I’d like to see this come back in a year and have another conversation about it, once we spend six months with that authority,’ Zurakowski said during the final day of budget meetings on Thursday.

Prince Albert’s current air terminal was built back in the late ‘70s. It currently seats 82 people, and houses two airline counters, but offers the city very little room for growth. Public Works Director Wes Hicks said they’ve received a number of requests over the years for various airport services, but without a bigger terminal there’s no room to expand. A single plane carrying miners to the north can nearly fill the terminal all on its own.

“We’ve presently been talking to a third airline that would like to join our airport, but there’s no counter space. There’s no seating space. There’s no cargo space,” Hicks told council. “We have requests, many times, for some sort of restaurant facilities, a rental car agency, but there’s no space, so we’re working out of a 45-year-old building, and even though the (passenger) numbers right now are pretty stationary, it’s the facilities and the services that we can’t provide to attract any new customers.”

Passenger numbers were one of the major concerns for council in its question to make the airport more profitable. In 2015, a total of 31,112 passengers came through the Prince Albert airport. That number dropped to 26,308 in 2016, and to 22,126 in 2017.

Less than 20,000 people are expected to use the airport in 2018, and city administration expects that number to fall even further in 2019, although a report from administration says peak hours are still just as busy as ever.

“The changes in the mining industry hit us in mid-2017, and then the announcements they made this year really just said that they weren’t going to go on an upswing like they planned to in November 2018, that they’re going to stay status quo,” airport manager Corey Nygaard said. “We’ve looked at the trends, and the trends point to those numbers.”

With that in mind, city council is considering a plan to create a new airport authority next year. Mayor Greg Dionne said he plans to have a report in front of city council before the end of the year. He’s optimistic that private companies would be willing to start or expand operations in Prince Albert, as long as the city provided a vision for the future.

In particular, Dionne said he wants the city to expand its ability to host different types of aircraft, like float planes heading to fishing lodges in the north.

“I think we can put a pretty good authority together to achieve what we want, and what we want is an active, profitable airport,” Dionne said.

If approved next year, the $100,000 conceptual design would be just the start of the new airport terminal project. The new building would cost an estimated $5 million to construct, although city administrators say that total could increase or decrease by as much as 25 per cent. They won’t know for sure until they pay of a concept design.

The Passenger Facility Fee Reserve, which would be used to cover the cost of the design, has generated more than $2 million since it was implemented in 2010.

Correction: An early version of this article incorrectly referred to Public Works Director Wes Hicks as Wes Stubbs. The Daily Herald apologizes for the error.