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Abbotsford makes airport pitch to Whistler

‘Hassle free’ airport looking for international brand recognition

When international travellers think of vacations in British Columbia Abbotsford probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But more and more, Abbotsford may be their first glimpse of B.C.

Last Thursday morning a Zoom Airlines 767 flew from London, England to Abbotsford International Airport. It was the first of what will be a weekly flight service between the Fraser Valley airport and London, from May to October.

Abbotsford International is B.C.’s fourth busiest airport at the moment, handling 400,000 passengers annually. But by 2010 the City of Abbotsford expects its airport will be second to Vancouver International Airport, handling 750,000 passengers a year.

Abbotsford’s problem is it doesn’t have brand name recognition as a destination airport. "We’re unknown outside of Canada," Ross Brown told a group of Whistler business people last week.

Whistler, on the other hand, has international brand recognition. What it’s seeking is improved access.

A breakfast meeting organized by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce last week was the first attempt to see if Abbotsford International (YXX) and Whistler might be able to help each other. The jury is still out, but some of the advantages Abbotsford offers and the factors that go into airlines’ decisions on where to land were laid out for the Whistler crowd.

Brown and Bill Lamberton of Edge Strategies Inc. introduced YXX as "Vancouver’s hassle free alternative." The airport is just off the Trans-Canada highway. Brown and Lamberton suggested the highway makes driving time from Abbotsford to Vancouver’s north shore (and Whistler) comparable to the driving time from Vancouver International Airport.

If twinning of the Port Mann Bridge goes ahead, as the Liberals have promised, the driving time could be improved.

In addition to easier access, it’s also easier and cheaper to park at YXX than at YVR.

However, bus service is another matter. There is no scheduled bus service from Abbotsford International to Whistler, as there is from Vancouver International. But for charter and package tour flights buses can be arranged from Abbotsford.

Abbotsford may also prove to be more attractive to some airlines, Brown said. He noted that the Zoom flight from London wouldn’t have come to Canada at all if not for Abbotsford. The reason is Zoom couldn’t get landing rights for the new flight at Vancouver International Airport; the airport is too busy.

But the cost to airlines of landing at Abbotsford is also cheaper than at Vancouver. Brown said landing fees could be up to 50 per cent cheaper at Abbotsford, depending on the type of aircraft. One of the reasons for that is that the City of Abbotsford owns the Abbotsford airport, while Vancouver International Airport annually pays millions to the federal government to lease the land. Those rates were reduced this week – YVR will save $6 million next year, with its lease payments going from $81 million to $75 million – but are still a huge cost Abbotsford doesn’t face.

Those savings in landing fees are passed on to the airlines, but the savings are less dramatic when boiled down to what the consumer pays for an airline ticket.

"Taking flights from Vancouver (and moving them) to Abbotsford is not going to help Whistler if the price to consumers is only 10 per cent cheaper," Fairmont Chateau Whistler General Manager Paul Tormey said.

Lamberton said later the savings in the consumer price of a ticket may not be substantial, but the savings to airlines may lead them to schedule more flights to Abbotsford, which could be a boon to Whistler.

Abbotsford is capable of handling wide-bodied commercial aircraft, since a recent runway expansion was completed this year, and is looking to expand the number of carriers using the airport. WestJet uses Abbotsford, as does Air Transat, which flies from Abbotsford to Mexico, and Air North, which provides service between Abbotsford and Las Vegas. The airport expects to attract a U.S. carrier in the next few months.