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Victoria airport sets record

Airport authority expects growth to flatline this year before recovering

Despite four years of solid growth and the record 1.5 million passengers that walked through its gates last year, the Victoria Airport Authority is expecting flat or no growth this year.

According to airport CEO Richard Paquette, the authority has budgeted for the flatline in 2009 because of growing economic uncertainty, yet he remains optimistic.

"Some people would call [flat] optimistic, but it's not compared to what's been happening here in the past," he said. "We have some bright spots on the horizon."

Those include the increased capacity of a second daily flight to San Francisco on United Express starting this spring, and no news, as yet, of carriers like Air Canada, WestJet, Horizon or United cutting their schedules.

"I think as long as we have the capacity and fair pricing, we'll be fine -- Victoria is a little unique and people continue to travel here," he said, noting Victoria could be in line for increased capacity from some airlines. "Where we may win is that relative to other parts of Canada we're in pretty good [economic] shape and the airlines have to make a decision about where they will operate their aircraft.

"I think B.C. and Victoria in particular are still a pretty good bet."

It's hard to argue with recent results.

Last year, Victoria International Airport saw 1.54 million passengers, a 3.8 per cent increase over the 1.48 million in 2007. Since 2004, the airport has seen a 23 per cent increase in passengers.

Paquette notes the increase in 2008 would have been considerably more if the airport hadn't lost seven per cent of its passenger load in December because of snow and cancelled flights.

According to figures from hospitality industry consultants Chemistry Consulting, that growth has been mirrored around the Island, with Comox Valley reporting a 64 per cent increase in passengers since 2004 and Nanaimo reporting a 27 per cent rise.

From the Victoria Airport Authority's perspective, last year's growth was largely due to added capacity, with increased seats between Victoria and Seattle on Horizon Air, WestJet flying to Las Vegas and United starting its San Francisco service.

"Those are all added seats that weren't there before," said Christine Stoneman, chairwoman of the authority. "Any time we can create anything where we don't have to make the trip to Vancouver or Calgary before getting on the main flight is a bonus."

That's why the airport authority has targeted extension of the main runway as one of its top priorities.

If the runway was extended to 2,560 metres from 2,133 metres, at an estimated cost of nearly $41.2 million, a fully loaded aircraft could take off with enough fuel to get to England.

The airport authority is proposing a three-way, cost-sharing deal with the provincial and federal governments to make the dream a reality.

Also on the radar screen is a $23-million upgrade at the intersection of the Patricia Bay Highway and McTavish Road to accommodate airport traffic. The authority has committed $3 million to an overpass project and is looking for assistance from the two senior levels of government.

Paquette said the two projects are ideal opportunities for both governments if they are serious about economic stimulus through infrastructure projects.

"We're certainly hoping [to get government commitments] and we are currently positioning ourselves for it," said Stoneman, noting she and Paquette were doing just that this week at the two-day economic summit organized by the B.C. government in Vancouver. "We're in a good position because we are 'shovel ready.' We've done extensive prep work on both, so once the money is there, it's fairly easy to get rolling."

The airport authority is already proceeding with a new $9.4-million airport fire hall and maintenance building.

"We did that because we needed it, but it's also something that could have been deferred," said Paquette. "But it's the right thing for us to do to support our economy."