Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Come Fly With Me - the Fort McMurray Airport and What Needs to Happen

It’s been a long time overdue. If you have flown out of the Fort McMurray Airport in recent years you’ve seen the congestion. Particularly right around arrival and departure times the airport is a bit like being a sardine in a can. There are times when I walked into the boarding waiting area and realized that if I wanted a seat I’d have to sit on someone’s lap (and frankly I’m both a little too old and a little too shy for that nonsense). The parking situation has been horrendous, and there were times in the past I considered abandoning my car at the Nova Hotel lot and walking in to the airport, dragging my luggage behind me. And why was this happening? Because our little airport is handling a capacity far beyond its capability.

There have been months when our little airport has seen 96,000 passengers. In one month. And now with the addition of international destinations, like Denver, things are only going to get busier, and so the airport expansion is not only welcome but crucial. An expanded airport with increased capability will serve this community well as not only will it be easier for residents to travel but it will be easier for others to come here, and should relieve some of the traffic on the local highways, too.

I’ve been watching the progress on the expansion with interest, and I’ve followed the news of the new food vendors with delight. As a former airline employee I am excited by a viewing deck where flying junkies like me can watch planes land and depart, dreaming of their destinations while thinking about all the trips we have taken. And I, along with many others, will be there for the air show, because I love all things flying. I have one grave concern about all this, though. We are building an airport to handle the capacity we see now, and will see in the future. In 2012 our little airport saw 957,000 passengers come through its doors, and given the oil sands growth projections this number will increase, and rapidly. My concern? The provincial government decision to cut the funding to the improvement of Highway 69, the road that accesses the airport.

I hate to overuse the “economic engine” phrase but the reality is that it’s true. This region is the economic engine of this province, and anything that makes the functioning of the industry and this community smoother needs to be considered carefully. Here is my concern: we will build a state-of-the-art, world-class airport capable of handling our current capacity and beyond, but we will lack the surrounding infrastructure to make it truly operational. What is the point of an airport of this nature if you don’t have the proper highway to access it, and one that just creates headaches and frustrations for the travelers you are trying to attract?

I realize the provincial government is facing some funding issues, but in my opinion the cut in funding to Highway 69 is short-sighted and exemplifies the old-style thinking that landed this region into the mess we find ourselves in – a situation of inadequacies in almost every corner, making do with so little for so long. We have been behind in infrastructure for so long, and this decision follows a long history of such decisions that led us here. We are showing the bold, innovative, progressive thinking necessary by doing things like expanding our airport, but if we are hindered by the provincial and federal government (and I include them in this because it is also in the best interests of the country to keep this community functioning well) then we cannot achieve our true goals and potential. Added to the Highway 69 issue is the issue of an unfunded lengthening of the runway, an improvement that would further increase our capacity.

I want to make something clear. The improvements to the Fort McMurray airport are not just for the benefit of this region. It will benefit this entire province and country because we all know that the economic strength of this region is one of the things that has kept Albertans and Canadians employed. This is not just about “Fort McMurray” – this is about ensuring the continued economic prosperity of our province and country. This is about making sure we can function well and smoothly and continue to be that economic engine. It is only with the support of the provincial and federal governments that we can make this happen. It’s time to get ‘er done – and cough up the dough to do it.


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