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Nanaimo airport to stretch

Extending the tarmac at Harbour City strip part of a $16.4-million makeover to bring in more flights, people

It may be too early for the Nanaimo airport to be looking at new routes and new carriers, but the mid-Island airport is intent on laying the groundwork with a $16.4-million expansion slated to start in early 2009.

An extended runway, improved lighting and instrumentation are all in the works as the airport strives to catch up to the recent expansion of both Victoria International and Comox Valley airports.

While he won't go so far as to say Nanaimo has been forgotten with the increased profiles and high traffic of its two Island rivals, Nanaimo Airport Commission president and CEO Mike Hooper admitted the improvements are a long time coming.

"The Nanaimo Regional District is one of the fastest growing districts in B.C., and we have not serviced those folks in those communities as well as we should," he said.

"And there's a real need to increase our services so we do better to help the travel needs of folk in our community."

Hooper, who noted the plans for this expansion have been talked about for nearly 10 years, said the focus for the moment is to improve the airport's reliability and infrastructure.

"Until we have the appropriate facilities it's difficult to have those conversations," he said when asked about an increase in number of carriers and routes from Nanaimo.

To that end, the airport begins the first phase of a three-part expansion set to begin next year. The tender process closes this week, with the contract to be awarded in January and ground-breaking set for February.

The $16.4-million budget is funded by a $6-million grant from the province, $5 million from the Island Coastal Economic Trust, $3 million from the airport commission and ongoing funding from what is expected to be an airport improvement fee set between $5 and $10.

"The first phase will be the runway extension with associated taxi-way, high-intensity lights for better visibility, lead-in lights to reach out to aircraft and instrument improvement," he said. "We're trying to become a reliable airport with enough capacity to offer flights to Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest.

"And we'd like to work with our partner Air Canada Jazz to grow the business and serve the community."

Nanaimo's only scheduled flights are offered by Air Canada Jazz.

The first phase is expected to be completed before the start of the 2010 Olympic Games, with the second stage -- increasing the footprint of the terminal facility and parking facilities -- done by 2012. The third phase, which brings more parking, is tentatively set for 2018.

aduffy@tc.canwest.com