The body that operates St. John's International Airport is attempting to deal with technological shortcomings and staggering growth.
To do this, the authority will need money - and lots of it - to install a Category III instrument landing system and, further into the future, expand the overcrowded main terminal building. The projects have a combined price tag of $60 million-plus.
The authority has approached the provincial and federal governments in hopes of cost-sharing the projects, but travellers can also expect to pay a fair share.
Bill Mahoney, who recently ended a six-year term as chairman of the airport's board of directors, acknowledged this week that an increase in the airport improvement fee - a $15 charge for all departing passengers - is likely.
"I do see a day when it will increase and it's a reflection of the cost of construction and the ever-increasing demands for capital at this airport, and all airports across this country," Mahoney said during a wide-ranging interview.
The extent of the increase could depend on the response from the two levels of government to a request for funding,
The authority is seeking a three-way funding partnership, arguing that such assistance is a "logical investment" to ensure the airport does not become an impediment to economic growth in the province.
"All it will do is expand the capacity and usability of our airport, and that more directly benefits the province and the federal government than the airport or the average traveller," Mahoney explained, adding that the authority and its partners pay nearly $64 million annually in taxes and fees to all levels of government.
The authority has long used revenue from the airport improvement fee - now estimated at $9 million annually - to finance capital improvements. The fee went from $10 to $15 in 2006.
Mahoney said the authority tries hard to make access to the airport as affordable as possible, both for airlines and passengers, and stressed that the fee is lower than those charged at most major Canadian airports.
Mahoney pointed to an infusion of federal and provincial money into the Deer Lake airport several years ago as an example of how such a cost-sharing arrangement can work.
"If they can justify that kind of investment in that particular airport when we deal with 80 per cent of the travelling public in the province, certainly we should see some consideration along those lines, as well," he said.
A Category III landing system and related upgrades is estimated to cost $25 million, and would practically eliminate diversions or delays because of low visibility conditions.
Delays and diversions affect approximately 70,000 passengers annually, and is most severe in the spring.
Mahoney described discussions with both levels of government as "very good" and said he's "very hopeful" of a favourable response.
"We think it's an obvious one for them," he said.
The province's minister of business, Ross Wiseman, said the department only recently received the proposal from the authority, and it's too early to speculate on whether the province will sign on.
"We are reviewing this as we speak," said Wiseman.
The authority is getting some high-powered support from the City of St. John's and the St. John's Board of Trade.
Mayor Dennis O'Keefe described the airport as essential piece of infrastructure that must be maintained at the highest level, and Board of Trade chairman Bruce Templeton said it's a vital link for the business community.
"In order to be a competitive city, we need a strong and vibrant university and an international airport," said Templeton.
He said an upgraded landing system would further strengthen the growing convention business.
An expansion to the main terminal, meanwhile, is a lesser priority, despite the fact it's been delayed for several years because of increasing construction costs.
A terminal expansion was completed in 2002 at a cost of more than $40 million, but passenger volumes have increased well beyond the projections of those who designed the building. And new security measures imposed following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have put added pressure on the facility.
The terminal is now handling nearly 1.3 million passengers annually, making it the ninth busiest airport in Canada.
Mahoney said an expansion must be done this decade, or travellers can expect even longer lineups and scheduling problems.
"We're reluctant to do it right now. We're not sure we would get good value in that. We can make some changes now that would ease some of the pressure points in the current operation," he said.
Mahoney said the airport has become a "wonderful welcome mat to our city and our province," and that's tied directly to the $140 million in capital improvements made since 1998.
"I'm leaving with a sense of pride and accomplishment," Mahoney said of his time on the board, which ends in August.
The former vice-chairman of the board, Fraser Edison, has succeeded Mahoney as chairman.
A history of St. John's Airport
April 28, 1941 - construction begins on an airport terminal.
1998 - federal government turns over management and operation of the airport to the St. John's International Airport Authority, a private, not-for-profit body. Annual passenger volume estimated at 690,000.
2002 - A $44-million expansion of the airport terminal is completed.
2004 - The airport welcomes more than 1 million passengers for the first time, 10 years ahead of forecasts.
2005 - There is a major modernization of the combined services building, home of the airport's snowclearing, firefighting and mechanical operations.
2006 - A new provincial visitor information centre opens.
2007 - A new central de-icing facility and parking ramp opens, resulting in a healthy increase in military aircraft traffic.
2008 - Self-serve ticket kiosks are installed.
Airport by the numbers:
$140 million - amount of money invested by the authority in capital expenditures since 1998.
$365 million - amount of money the airport's operations generate to the economy.
1,400 - the number of people employed annually at St. John's airport.
20 per cent - amount of passenger capacity added by airlines in 2008 during the peak summer period, resulting in a three per cent increase in passenger traffic.
$15 - the amount of the airport improvement fee charged departing passengers and used exclusively to fund the airport's capital program.
40 per cent - the level to which the main terminal building is operating above designed capacity.
80 per cent - the percentage of non-resident visitors to the province who enter through St. John's International Airport, making it truly the gateway to the province.
5 per cent - the size of the decline in passenger traffic at major airports across Canada in 2009. Meanwhile, St. John's held its own, with numbers on par with 2008.
60 - the number of daily flights to and from St. John's airport, serving all major destinations in Canada.
Six - the number of commercial airlines operating at St. John's airport: Air Canada, WestJet, Porter Airlines, Provincial Airlines, Continental Airlines and Air St-Pierre.
1,465 - the number of military aircraft that refuelled at the airport in 2009 - a 20 per cent increase over 2008.
$40 million - estimated total expenditures by military personnel who landed at the airport in 2009.
$100 - the debt per passenger carried by the airport authority, helping it maintain an A1 bond rating from Moody's Investments.
$22.5 million - the amount of revenue generated by the airport authority in 2009.
Source: St. John's International Airport Authority
SAFE AND SECURE
Keeping it safe
Emergency response at St. John's International Airport is said to exceed regulatory requirements. The airport operates at a Category 7 level, and is capable of providing a Category 8 response with 30 minutes' notice.
The response team consists of a fire chief, four fire captains and 12 firefighters operating on four separate shifts, providing around-the-clock protection.
A new rescue truck was recently added to the airport's complement of three fire trucks and a command vehicle.
Security is a priority
Security measures at the airport have been enhanced dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Passenger and baggage screening has been the responsibility of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) since it was created in 2002. There are an estimated 110 CATSA employees at St. John's International Airport.
Movement throughout the airport is tightly controlled, and those with security clearance must routinely submit to retina or fingerprint scans before entering certain areas.
Clear and safe runways
The airport authority has invested $5 million in snow and ice control equipment over the last several years.
Due to the adverse weather conditions at the airport, officials from other airports in Canada often visit St. John's to study and learn from practices used at the most easterly airport in North America.
The authority has invested $14 million in airfield improvements over the past two years, including a new approach lighting system and resurfacing of a secondary runway, the rehabilitation of drainage systems, and new low visibility taxiway lighting that will be commissioned in the coming days.
A new central de-icing facility has also made the de-icing of planes a more efficient and safe practice. Products used to de-ice planes are also collected and recycled instead of draining into a nearby stream.
Source: St. John's International Airport Authority