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Airport authority to discuss expansion

Direct flights to England possible with extension of main runway

The Victoria Airport Authority has announced United Airlines will be adding a second direct daily flight to San Francisco this spring -- but the airport is setting its sights on much bigger fish as it plans its future.

Included on the agenda of the authority's board meeting this Monday will be discussion of infrastructure improvements designed to extend the airport's runway to accommodate a direct flight to London.

According to Richard Paquette, CEO of the airport authority, the time may be right to get the project -- extending the main runway to 2,560 metres from 2,133 metres at an estimated cost of nearly $20 million -- on the radar screen considering current government interest in fast-forwarding infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy.

The extended runway would allow an aircraft to take off fully loaded with enough fuel to get to England.

"I would think this would be an opportunity for the federal and provincial governments to consider as part of their investment that they will be making over the next year or so, considering the economic downturn," he said, noting there is still plenty of work to be done on the project, not the least of which is having the VAA board give it the thumbs-up.

According to Gordon Denford, chairman of the VAA board, there may be an appetite to push projects like this forward.

"There are a number of capital projects we have projected in our five-year plan, and we have to look at them and see which ones we can accelerate somewhat because it would be a good time to do it," he said with a nod to the availability of government infrastructure money.

Paquette emphasized the benefit of extending the main runway would be felt well beyond the airport and into the community, and to that end the VAA has undertaken some groundwork.

"We are going to be looking for carriers that would be interested in operating between here and London, if we should have a runway expanded to accommodate it," said Paquette. "It's a chicken-and-egg thing and we're going to be continuing our work on the engineering, financial and community aspects of it."

Denford said they may also try and increase pressure on the provincial government to move on one of the authority's other main priorities, the upgrade to airport access.

The VAA has been calling for a $13-million upgrade to the intersection of the Patricia Bay Highway and McTavish Road. The authority has committed $3 million to the project and is looking for assistance from all levels of government.

"It seems to have been delayed and delayed," said Denford.

"We have some concerns about that, particularly in terms of safety with the increased traffic."

One project that appears to have speeded up is the expansion of the Victoria-San Francisco service, talked about since it was first launched June 5.

United Express will expand to a twice-daily flight effective March 29.

Instead of operating a 66-seat CRJ 700 once a day, United Express will use a 50-seat regional jet leaving Victoria at 7:35 a.m. and 2:45 p.m., and leaving San Francisco at 11:30 a.m. and 6:55 p.m.

"It's good news," said Paquette, noting there had been concerns the service would be seasonal in nature. "I guess United is encouraged enough with what they've seen so far to expand the service into the spring of next year."

According to a survey of passengers done over three months this summer, the daily flight had an average 75 per cent passenger load.

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