Whistler may get serious about airport 

Council to consider further studies Monday; Pemberton says look here first

Whistler councillors will decide next week if they want to pursue the creation of a local airport any further.

Municipal staff will ask council at its regularly scheduled meeting Monday for funding to further investigate the findings of a just completed consultant’s report on where to locate a commercial strip and terminal.

The consultants, hired late last year, were looking at sites in the Callaghan Valley. They found that the originally suggested location wouldn’t work as pilots could not safety abort a landing.

However, the report highlighted a seconded location just inside the municipal boundaries at Brandywine.

This preferred site will only work if the airport utilizes RNP (required navigational procedure) technology. This allows jets to take-off and land safely in mountainous regions or bad weather.

The next study will likely cost around $20,000 and involves hiring an expert in RNP to look at the feasibility of locating this must-have technology at the Brandywine airport location, said Mike Vance, the RMOW’s general manager of community initiatives.

The airport, which could cater to jets such as 737s, would run north-south roughly parallel to Highway 99. It would be east of the highway and encompass part of a hydro transmission corridor. It is likely that at least one hydro transmission tower would have to be re-located.

Whistler Councillor Nick Davies, who spearheaded council’s investigation of the airport idea, said it is early days yet but at least the report has suggested a way forward using technology.

"If (the consultant) comes back and tell us that from that perspective it looks like we can put an airport there then we need to start asking questions like, can we get the land, what are the environmental issues, what are the geotechnical issues, and of course what is the business case," he said.

At the last council meeting, said Davies, staff said that there would be a 43 per cent increase in bus trips from Vancouver International Airport to Whistler by 2020 – that’s 73 bus trips a day. There would also be a 54 per cent increase in charter buses to the resort.

Those types of statistics lend weight to the idea of pursuing an airport near Whistler, said Davies.

"Consistently the message I am getting back from (many sectors) is that an airport would be great and it would improve business," he said.

That’s a welcome message in light of a just released report by the municipality, which shows no growth in the number of visitors to the resort. In fact annual visitor numbers peaked at 2.3 million in 1998-1999 and declined by 17 per cent, to 1.9 million, in the three following years.

Davies and others believe a local airport might be one way to regain a competitive edge over other resorts.

"Based on the discussions I have had with people in the community an airport could make a profound difference to our competitiveness in the market," said Davies, who is also a recreational pilot.

He is not alone in his belief.

Whistler-Blackcomb’s executive vice president and chief operating officer David Brownlie said the company fully supports airport access to the resort.

"Our biggest market is clearly the US," he said.

"We have seen that market decline since 9/11 happened and the (change in the) exchange rate, so air access would be a big improvement to help go back and attract that market."

But some corridor residents are questioning Whistler’s pursuit of an airport.

Pemberton Councillor Mark Blundell would like to see officials from the corridor, government representatives from transport, and First Nations get together to look at expanding Pemberton’s airport rather than starting from scratch south of Whistler.

"I am sure the people of Pemberton would be more than obliging in looking at some sort of proposal, or maybe two or three, to see which one might work," he said.

Pemberton has undertaken studies to investigate expanding its airport for commercial jets and it is feasible. The problem is finding the money to bankroll the expansion.

"There are all sorts of avenues that can be pursued with Pemberton’s airport," said Blundell.

"I’m saying it just makes business and economic sense to do it."

Blundell understands how stagnant tourist numbers might jumpstart the idea of getting an airport in place. But he said Whistler politicians shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that much of Pemberton’s success is tied to Whistler’s and solutions to foster growth should be looked at by both communities together.

"I can tell you right now, that if Whistler doesn’t grow… that is going to have a real effect on Pemberton, so we both have to work together for a proper solution," said Blundell.

"There are a lot of reasons why people aren’t coming to Whistler so Whistler and Pemberton have to start thinking outside the box to create more economic development and the airport is our biggest asset and I have been saying that for months and years."


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