Published in June 2015 issue

Celebrating 75 Years of Innovation

By Dan Rutherford

When arriving in or departing from Victoria International Airport, travelers experience the enjoyment of a past era, when large windows allowed friends and families to greet or wave farewell to their loved ones arriving or departing. An upper level observation lounge area was built as a relaxing place to rest and enjoy the quiet while waiting for arriving passengers—something seldom seen in today’s hectic aviation environment.

YYJ also provides the enjoyment of a wonderfully modern and efficient terminal that it is not only good-looking, but also welcoming, and maintains secure areas and an effective passenger movement in a relaxing manner. The enjoyment of traveling through Victoria International Airport is no accident; it is the outcome of the airport authority’s vision. Geoff Dickson, Airport President and CEO, assures, “we like to make every part of the passenger’s interaction with us easy.” Air travelers today know that fulfilling such a vision is a challenging task, given the vast numbers of passengers and the security concerns that can make an airport a stressfilled experience; YYJ is a whole different deal.

Located at the southern end of Vancouver Island in Canada’s British Columbia, Victoria International Airport is the tenth busiest airport in the country, with a sizeable traffic of over 1.6 million passengers in 2014—a figure which continues to climb, as February 2015 marked its sixteenth consecutive month of passenger growth.

These are certainly remarkable numbers, considering that the population of Victoria is less than 400,000. In fact, YYJ is well served, with more than 120 daily flights across North America. Carrier service is provided by major airlines, including Air Canada (AC), Horizon Air (QX), United (UA) and WestJet (WS), plus seasonal flights operated by Air Transat (TS) and Sunwing Airlines (WG). Additionally, there are local regional airlines, which include Orca Airways (ORK), Pacific Coastal (8P) and Island Express (1X), servicing smaller communities in British Columbia.

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YYJ has just celebrated its 75th Anniversary. The history of this airport dates back to the late 1930s, when a grass airstrip was developed on the current airport’s site. This strip was adjacent to an active floatplane base that serviced the era’s flying boats on Patricia Bay. As the Second World War unfolded in Europe, the need for pilot training was addressed by building a series of training sites.

Between 1937 and 1943, nearly 88 airfields were built across Canada to train pilots from all over the British Empire as a part of the ‘British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and Allied War Effort.’ One of these airfields was the Pat Bay Air station, the third largest Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) base in Canada during the war, with more than 10,000 personnel. Many artifacts from that era are on display at the BC Aviation Museum, located right on the airfield and well worth a visit. Today, YYJ is home to the 443 Helicopter Squadron, operating CH-124 Sea King ship-borne anti-submarine helicopters, an important pillar of the Canadian military.

In 1943, a license was issued to Trans Canada Airlines TCA (later to be Air Canada) to operate 14 passenger Lockheed Electras on a commercial route between Vancouver and Victoria. By 1947, TCA was operating Douglas DC-3 aircraft, and also linking the city to Seattle (SEA). Air travel to and from Victoria continued to grow in the next decade, leading to the airport being renamed Victoria International in 1959.

With the advent of jet aircraft in the early 1960s, the original 5,000-foot main runway (09/27) was extended by an additional 1,000 feet to accommodate newer aircraft like the Douglas DC-8, and, with the subsequent increase in passenger loads, a new terminal was constructed. The 1970s saw more upgrades, with 1,000 additional feet added to the runway and the opening of another passenger terminal designed to handle more than 500,000 passengers annually. Steady growth was seen throughout the 1980s, with service also provided by the now defunct Canadian Airlines (CP).

The 1990s were a time in which the operations of many airports were devolved to local authorities rather than being managed by the government. The Greater Vancouver Island Chamber of Commerce seized the opportunity, forming a not-for-profit corporation: the Victoria Airport Authority (VAA), which was granted a 60-year lease. A two-phase expansion plan was begun in 2001 and 2006, resulting in a modernized facility well suited to cope with the steady annual passenger growth.

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Victoria International Airport is the result of a design process completed in 2014 at a price  tag of $8.1 million. The new terminals reflect a number of specific values that go beyond simply moving passengers through a safe and secure environment. James Bogusz, V.P. Operations and Development, admits that the primary mantra for the entire design process was “ease.”

According to Bogusz, the airport’s stakeholders continuously ask themselves what changes can be made to take the stress out of travel and help passengers enjoy their experience, something many airports around the globe are heavily pursuing. Greater efficiency was achieved by changing the passenger flows for quicker movement to the air-side, considerably reducing transit time. Capacity was also increased, to enable transition from the pre-security area, by incorporating an innovative, well-defined design and clear signage. This redesign included moving and grouping escalators and elevators into a wellmarked central area in order to facilitate the forward movement of passengers.

Maintaining a highly secure area while, at the same time, increasing ease of use has been accomplished by providing greater capacity to the security lines and a unique ‘wait time’ signage that shows passengers how many minutes the screening time will take. The wait time board is constantly updated with the use of a datafeed linked to the scanning of boarding passes. According to a study performed by the airport authority, this type of signage seems to greatly reduce stress, as passengers know what to anticipate, thus removing the guesswork.

Some of the airport’s best features are the West Coast themed air-side stores and eateries. A renowned local restaurant known as Spinnakers was tagged to provide travelers with both graband- go food and full service menu preparation. The pub-style atmosphere even provides a special label beer created specifically by this brew-house restaurant for its YYJ location. This complements the ground-side concessions, which include local favorites like Tim Hortons, White Spot Restaurant, and the usual Starbucks.

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Victoria is also attractive for the airline industry as a cost-effective place to do business; in fact, it is the most cost-effective airport in Canada. The Air Transport Research Society’s 2014 Global Airport Benchmarking Report has identified YYJ as the lowest cost-perenplaned- passenger airport of the 12 major ones studied in the country. This has been a strategic effort made by the VAA in recognition of the benefits for all concerned, cheaper costs allow for greater service from airlines and more options for the community.

“It is extremely important to us to be a low cost airport,” says Dickinson, “We recognize that profit margins in the airline industry are thin, and that our status allows them to keep their prices down,” he notes. According to Dickinson, this goal has been achieved by maximizing revenues and developing partnerships that help spread the operating cost burden. “A major part of our cost reduction is a growing and vibrant business community that has become a long-term land-tenant within the airport,” he admits. “Some 50 businesses have long-term leases, and their revenues make up about 12.5% of the annual $24 million profits,” he says. Dickinson revealed that 66% of the airport’s total revenue is generated fromnon-aeronautical sources.

One of the airport’s most important tenants is Viking Air Limited, the maker of the all-new Twin Otter Series 400 and type certificate holder for the DHC-1 Chipmunk, DHC-2 Beaver, DHC-2T Turbo Beaver, DHC-3 Otter, DHC-6 Twin Otter, DHC-4 Caribou, DHC-5 Buffalo and DHC-7 Dash 7 aircraft. Deliveries of the new Series 400 Twin Otter are taking place worldwide, with a robust order book and nearly 70 aircraft already in service worldwide.

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Unsurprisingly, Victoria’s main links are with the nearby Vancouver, Seattle and Toronto, Canada’s main airport. The airport’s lack of long-haul flights forces its travelers to transit through larger hubs, such as the aforementioned ones, to reach ‘heavy’ destinations. When asked about the potential for international and long haul routes, Bogusz showed optimism. “We continue to look towards long haul service to Europe in the mid to long term,” he concedes. “However, we are focusing our efforts primary within North America.” According to him, some key markets lacking non-stop service in North America are Los Angeles (LAX), Denver (DEN), Winnipeg (YWG), Ottawa (YOW), Regina (YQR), Halifax (YHZ) and Saskatoon (YXE), most of which he hopes to see direct flights to. “At the end of the day, the airlines are those who decide where to fly, but our role is to suggest opportunities they may not have been considering closely,” he notes.

WestJet—one of Canada’s main carriers—has played a big role in the traffic growth of YYJ. “We are very pleased with the continued growth of WestJet’s Encore (WR) service,” Bogusz enthuses. The low cost airline has recently added three flights to Vancouver (YVR) on top of its direct flights to Calgary (YYC), Edmonton (YEG), Kelowna (YLW), Las Vegas (LAX), Phoenix (PHX), and Toronto (YYZ), and seasonal links to Cancun (CUN), Honolulu (HNL), and Puerto Vallarta (PVR).

As traffic continues to show a steady growth—from 1.49 million in 2011 to 1.65 million in 2014—and airlines such as Air Canada Rouge (RV) and new entrant Canada Jetlines showing interest in expanding service to Victoria International Airport, the VAA will demonstrate that it is possible to create a diverse, welcoming and economically viable environment despite its closeness to giant hubs such as neighboring Vancouver and Seattle.