Big changes may soon be on the horizon for the Niagara District Airport, and chief executive officer Daniel Pilon is excited about the possibilities.
Last week the Niagara District Airport Commission released a Request for Proposal (RFP) for third-party operators interested in assuming management responsibilities of the facility.
A fixture in the community since 1929, the airport is currently operated by the commission through the municipal governments of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines. It sits on 362 acres of land owned by the town.
“We recognize the importance an airport plays in a community and in an economy,” Pilon tells The Local. “We’re trying to find innovative and different means of growing our asset. We have some opportunities here to see what some of this interest could look like.”
Pilon expects significant responses from third parties to the RFP, despite a 2017 offering that garnered only three bids.
He is adamant that since that previous RFP the industry has seen major changes. Before the pandemic, Niagara District Airport was experiencing unprecedented growth, with 45,000 movements (arrivals and departures) in 2019.
As well, the success of scheduled service to Toronto via FlyGTA Airlines, begun in late 2016, has proven the value of the facility in bringing travellers to the region, says Pilon.
During the pandemic, however, those movements were cut almost in half. The CEO feels that with a rebound on the way for the aviation industry, now is the perfect time to put the call out for submissions.
“These scenarios are where some people will see opportunity,” he says. “It’s certainly been a difficult 18 or 19 months, but we’d like to think that it will create an environment where there will be significant interest. People have already and will soon be flying again. They’re going to want to travel. When you have 13 million tourists a year, you need to invest in all your different modes of transportation.”
The airport is a key part of the region’s transportation master plan, along with GO Transit and an amalgamated regional transit service to link Niagara’s 12 municipalities. With the province forecasting a regional population of 610,000 by 2041, an increase of 168,000 persons, ease of movement throughout the region becomes even more important.
Pilon expects that the bids will come from companies already in the airport management business elsewhere.
“Operating an airport is different from operating an airline,” he explains. “There’s far more involved from a regulatory perspective, keeping abreast with Transport Canada. It’s not uncommon for airports to be operated privately. The Hamilton airport, for example, is operated by Vantage Airport Group, who also run the Vancouver Airport. We’re excited to see what interest is out there.”
The airport’s annual budget runs at just over $1 million, with approximately a third of that designated for capital costs.
“It’s a little on the light side,” Pilon says. “In Niagara, we get a lot of bang for our buck, with the support of the municipalities, working with different grants. The capital investment is really the big item. It’s what you want to have from a terminal perspective, what kind of service do you want to create, what do you want to spend to maintain the asphalt of your runways.”
There have been a number of key improvements to the airport over the years. Since 2010, $11.6 million dollars of improvements have taken place under the Infrastructure Stimulus Fund, including runway rehabilitation, an expanded parking lot, improved lighting, and the new terminal.
Pilon sees a transition in management as key to the future growth of the airport’s suite of offerings. Its location close to the highway and easy access for tourists to both Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls make it a potential catalyst to attract future business to the region.
“There’s also corporate travel coming in, folks staying at some of the high-end luxury accommodations in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” he adds. “There’s a significant portion of tourism and business travel.”
With the RFP being released, the future of the Airport Commission and the financial involvement of the three municipalities is somewhat up in the air, depending on the winning submission. The possibility exists that the funding of the airport may come off the books of the three governments.
“We might see different offerings from a whole host of individuals,” says Pilon. “I think, on behalf of the municipalities, that may be the expectation, that they may not have to engage from a financial perspective. It’s a bit of an unknown, but I think that’s what the municipalities are expecting, that they will be removing themselves from their annual financial support.”
Under any new agreement, the Niagara District Airport Commission would continue to exist and would oversee the management of the airport by the company. With a municipal election coming in October, 2022, there may be some changes to that commission and how it operates, but it will continue to guide the facility’s operations.
The CEO is adamant that any successful third party partner would retain and uphold the existing leasing agreements with businesses on-site, including the St. Catharines Flying Club and FlyGTA Airlines.
Currently, there are no plans to extend the length of the runway. At 5,000 feet, corporate jets and general aviation are easily accommodated. Domestic aircraft from Canadian cities in the range of 75 to 100 passengers can be brought in at the current runway length.
The RFP closes on October 20. Pilon expects evaluation of the submissions and the subsequent negotiation process would result in an executed agreement with a successful operator some time in February, 2022.
“We are expecting a lot of interest,” Pilon says. “We’re hopeful, given the attractiveness of this asset, that we see some quality submissions.”