Passengers flying out of St. John’s International Airport who like to grumble about the $35 airport improvement fee charged on every departing ticket will soon see where a chunk of that money has been going.
Airport authority officials say the construction on the airport terminal building expansion is nearing completion and should be open for when schools let out for summer and the peak travel season begins in earnest.
“It’ll be fun to open it because it’s going to deal with so many of the problems we’ve had in the past — capacity, passenger flow, services, you name it,” CEO and president Keith Collins told The Telegram following the authority’s annual public meeting this week.
“We know from hearing from passengers the last decade what needed to be fixed and we’ve dealt with all of it and we can’t wait to share it with the rest of the world.”
Once complete, the check-in area on the first floor will be 40 per cent larger and the departures lounge will be more than double its current square footage, with triple the seating, more washrooms, two new gates, a new children’s play area and a space for nursing mothers.
It will also feature a host of new food and retail options as the authority moves away from its master concessionaire program — operated by Compass Group — to an independent franchisee model.
Among the new retail options are Breakwater Place — operated by Relay — and a Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Shop.
New food options include the Newfoundland Chocolate Company, Booster Juice and a full-service Yellow Belly, which marks the first time in the airport’s 76-year commercial airline history that passengers can purchase alcohol after going through security.
The authority says even more concessions will be revealed in the coming months.
As for the pre-board screening — designed before 9-11, before the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) even existed, and when the airport was servicing about 700,000 passengers annually compared to the 1.5 million it serves now — will have more lines, faster technology and a designated Nexus line for pre-approved, low-risk travellers.
“The passenger throughput will be higher and faster, so you should spend less time in the queue,” Collins says. “If you are in the queue, it’ll be one that will be on the level, it won’t be down over the stairs.”
Once the east expansion is completed, the authority will turn its attention to the west end of the airport in Phase 2 of the expansion, which will create an additional 100,000 square feet in the arrivals area and more still in the departures lounge, with even further concessions.
“The baggage handling systems that we have are quite old and we have a lot of maintenance problems with them,” says Art Cheeseman, chair of the authority’s board of directors.
“There’s a lack of space in terms of customs and they’re looking for more space, which we’re trying to accommodate to make life easier for them and to help us get more facilities to accommodate more international flights.
It’s also expected to include more aircraft gates and address transportation issues outside the airport with a dedicated passenger pickup area — in close proximity to the rental car parking lot — for vehicles, buses and hotel shuttles.
Design work is underway, with construction expected to start in 2019.
The airport will measure over 420,000 square feet, more than double its current size.
Decade of development
On the subject of the airport improvement fee (AIF), there’s good news and bad news: there are no plans to increase it again “within the horizon” of the airport’s 10-year improvement and expansion plan announced last year, but it’s also not going away any time between now and 2026.
“There’s no sunset clause,” Collins says.
“We don’t see a need right now to increase the AIF, and others in the country will catch up to us as they enter major construction projects.”
Airport officials defend the fee, saying it is the primary source of revenue used to pay off the money it gets through bonds and lines of credit that allow the improvements benefiting passengers.
Of the $312 million spent on YYT upgrades since 1998, less than 60 per cent has been collected through the AIF.
“We borrow money, we build because it needs to be built and then we pay it back with the AIF,” Collins says. “The fact we’ve collected less than 60 per cent of what we’ve spent means that we still need to collect it so we can pay off our debts.”
As a result of an effort to decrease dependency on fees charged to airlines, 54 per cent of airport revenue in 2017 came from non-aeronautical sources such as the new concessions program, the advertising sales program and land leases worth $5 million. That number could grow significantly in years to come, with another 250 acres of land for development.
Of the $200 million proposed to be spent between 2017 and 2026, a portion of it will deal with lifecycle replacements and refurbishment of aprons, airfield taxiways and the central de-icing facility in the short term, and further taxiway expansion and widening of the airport access road in the long term.
“In a city you’ve got equipment, you’ve got streets, you’ve got asphalt, you’ve got infrastructure … we’ve got all that here,” Cheeseman says. “Given the fact that we are an airport and safety is a big issue for us, we have to be sure that our runways, our taxiways, all those things, are up to a very high standard.”
Manhattan and Moncton
Since 2008, airline seat capacity has grown by 35 per cent at YYT, but the authority isn’t satisfied with 80 daily flights to and from 20 destinations in Canada, the United States and Europe.
Two destinations they’re actively pursuing — based on demand — are Moncton, N.B., and New York, N.Y.
“When there was a downturn in the oil industry, of course, the leg from New York to Houston sort of dried up. But there’s been a tremendous increase in local travellers from here to New York, particularly in light of the phenomena of the Broadway show,” Cheeseman says of the smash hit “Come From Away.”
As for Moncton, Collins says it was a widely used flight until CanJet Airlines changed to a charter model in 2006. Since then, he says, most people fly to Halifax and drive the rest of the way.
“We think if we can find the right airline partner and the right price point, a flight from St. John’s to Moncton is going to do very well,” Collins says. “It’ll be supported principally by business travel, not by leisure travel, if you look at the number of businesses that operate and need to get back and forth from there.”
Fog no longer a factor
To suggest the Category III Instrument Landing System (ILS) installed at the airport in 2015 in an effort to reduce the number of landing flights affected by poor visibility has exceeded the authority’s expectations would be a drastic understatement.
In 2016, only 40 flights were affected, while last year, just 16 were affected, which represents a 99 per cent accessibility rate.
In cases where visibility was an issue, it was a result of the aircrafts not being equipped to use the system.
“It’s an absolute game changer for here because people in the past would want to book conferences in St. John’s in the spring, but wouldn’t because of concerns about getting half their delegates in or getting stranded here,” says Airport Authority CEO and president Keith Collins. “They haven’t got those concerns anymore.”
Asked when the airport authority will institute systems to deal with other meteorological conditions impeding the arrival and departure of aircraft, Collins said, “Only God can fix cross winds and snow.”