Editorial 

Commercial air service a matter of time

A study done a couple of years ago by Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners found that approximately 60 per cent of total skier visits to Whistler-Blackcomb came by way of airline travel. The study further found that about 30 per cent of B.C.’s 6.25 million skier visits in the winter of 2001-02 arrived by air.

A couple of statistics like that don’t make the case for an airport in Whistler or for upgrading the Pemberton Airport to handle commercial flights. But they do provide examples, in the post 9/11 world, of how significant airline travel is generally to the ski business.

Could a proper airport at the north end of the Sea to Sky corridor increase visits and help fill hotel rooms in Whistler? Most people have no doubt. Whistler-Blackcomb’s Chief Operating Officer, Dave Brownlie, has said it’s an easy case to make and the impact would be significant.

Money to build a Whistler airport, or expand the Pemberton Airport, is also not a problem according to Brownlie, who has a better understanding of Intrawest’s financial resources and commitments than most of us.

The issues are where to build the airport and how to do it in a way that doesn’t make enemies of neighbours. Some answers should come forward in the next month. Consultant Mel Feddersen is expected to present his report on the Pemberton Airport’s potential in the next week. Feddersen has been straightforward in assessing the issue: "I told them last September that if you can’t build this airport to service 737s then the discussion stops and it really doesn’t matter what rhetoric is out there," Feddersen said.

The residents of Pemberton also have to decide if they want 737s flying into that valley on a regular basis. That, presumably, will be part of the discussion when the Whistler and Pemberton councils get together towards the end of April to talk about airports.

On the surface those would seem to be two fairly straightforward questions that could be answered quickly, and if the answer to either is no then evaluating the feasibility of an airport in the Brandywine/Callaghan area would begin. But Pemberton is counting on its airport being a major piece of the transportation puzzle in the lead-up to and during the 2010 Olympics. Various governments have sunk $7 million into the Pemberton Airport over the years. Moreover, development of a brand new airport from scratch would involve all the lengthy consultations that accompany any development on Crown land in B.C. In other words, building a new airport in Whistler would take a long-term commitment before the first plane lands.

But in the long run – beyond 2010 – it seems inevitable that commercial air service to this end of the corridor must happen. There is too much invested in Whistler, by individuals, corporations and governments. To limit the return on that investment by limiting access doesn’t make sense.

But assuming a decision on one airport or the other is made soon, the capital is available and no one’s nose is out of joint after the decision has been made – admittedly large assumptions – then the job is to convince airlines to fly to this airport. The one thing that convinces them is guaranteed seat sales, as Whistler and most destination resorts around the world already know. It’s not cheap but it works. It also involves all businesses in the tourism industry, directly or indirectly. In Vail, for instance, Vail Resorts puts up the money to guarantee airline seats in the winter, while local businesses put up the money to guarantee seats in the summer.

Direct flights from New York, London and Tokyo to Whistler are not in the foreseeable future, but connecting flights from American cities through Seattle and on to Whistler are a real possibility.

And while very few of the big airlines are making money these days, the charter business is competitive. In fact, charter airlines probably hold more potential for bringing visitors to Whistler 12 months of the year than do the major airlines. Charter airlines have the flexibility to work with group golf tours and conferences that the major airlines aren’t capable of servicing.

Air service to this end of the corridor would seem to be inevitable, although not imminent. That’s fine, but once the studies are in, the discussions have been held and everyone’s concerns understood, some decisions have to be made that will lead to one airport at the north end of the corridor capable of handling commercial airliners.

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