Lack of direct airport connections stifling Ottawa economic growth, aviation summit hears

airport
Photo by Jan Jasinski

While glitches in the city’s new LRT line threw a wrench into the daily commute for many Ottawans this week, local business leaders told an aviation industry panel on Thursday they want faster, more direct travel to other parts of the world as well.

The need for more direct air connections from Ottawa’s international airport to major global commerce hubs dominated the Ottawa Aviation Summit at the Hilton Garden Inn Ottawa Airport on Thursday morning. Hosted by the Ottawa Board of Trade, the half-day event brought together several dozen players from the aviation, tech, tourism and other industries to discuss a range of issues affecting the local aviation sector.

During a panel discussion on the economic impact of the lack of direct flights to Ottawa, Shopify vice-president of talent Janeen Speer noted it can take up to 10 hours to fly to San Francisco from Ottawa. She said recruiting workers from abroad is a tough sell when they find out they have to take three or four separate flights to get to the city.  

“Some of those things can be real challenges for people looking to uproot their families and relocate to Ottawa,” said Speer, who was part of a panel that also included Joel Tkach from the Ottawa International Airport Authority and Air Canada network planning director Alexandre Lefevre. “From (a talent) attraction perspective, there are a few hiccups.”

Moodie Chiekh, the CEO of local firm Searidge Technologies, later told OBJ his company’s half-dozen most recent hires are based in other parts of the world, partly because it’s too costly and inconvenient for them to travel to customers in places such as Asia from Ottawa.

‘It’s a significant issue for us,” said Chiekh, whose company makes digital camera technology that allows air traffic controllers to manage airport towers from remote locations. 

“Eighty per cent of our customers are international, so we’ve got to visit those customers sometimes on a monthly basis. As we continue to develop our customer base, it’ll become more of an issue.”

More data needed to inform new routes

The summit comes at a time when U.S. traffic numbers have waned at Ottawa’s airport, thanks in part to high-profile route cancellations such as United Airlines’ decision to scrap its daily flights to Chicago, North America’s largest air travel hub.

The airline recently announced it will resume the three-times-daily service next March. However, United said it plans to cancel its twice-daily flights between YOW and New Jersey’s Newark airport at around the same time.

Lefevre told the audience most decisions to add or cut direct flights come down to sheer economics: if a route isn’t profitable, it won’t fly. If Ottawa’s business leaders can demonstrate there’s enough demand for, say, a direct YOW-Paris flight by showing how much local traffic is funnelled through hubs such as Montreal and Toronto, it would consider adding such a route, he said.

“Give us data,” Lefevre said. “We are really data-driven.”

Tkach noted that “leakage” of passengers from Ottawa who drive to other airports hurts the city’s cause when trying to convince airlines to add more direct connections to international destinations.

“When people hop in a car and drive to Montreal, that works against us because it does not show up as a point of sale in Ottawa,” said Tkach, the airport’s vice-president of business development and marketing.

Speer acknowledged the issue is a challenge for the airport, adding Ottawa is in a “chicken-and-egg” dilemma. While YOW needs to generate more passenger traffic to justify more direct air routes, the lack of direct flights to Ottawa is also stunting business growth that could help it reach those targets, she said.

Air Canada-Air Transat merger could be boon

Tkach said he sees reason for hope in Air Canada’s proposed merger with Air Transat. The country’s No. 3 airline typically uses smaller aircraft such as the Airbus A321, a narrow-body airliner which seats fewer than 200 passengers but still has the range to fly to destinations in Europe.

“We don’t have the right numbers for a wide-body aircraft with 250 seats plus, but we have good numbers for the smaller aircraft with fewer than 200 seats,” he said.

Airport authority president Mark Laroche agreed, saying he thinks there’s sufficient local demand to make direct flights to cities such as San Francisco and Paris economically viable on an aircraft like the A321.

“When Air Canada and Transat merge, hopefully they keep that aircraft and still continue to think about us,” Laroche said in an interview after the event.

Sueling Ching, the interim CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade, said she wants the organization to survey members to find out how much the lack of direct flights to international destinations is affecting their bottom lines. Hard evidence is necessary to persuade the airlines that more such flights are necessary, she noted.

“It’s all very anecdotal right now,” she said.

Laroche agreed.

“If it’s a data-driven decision, make sure that we have the data to support what we’re asking, and if it doesn’t support it, we have to accept that it doesn’t support it,” he said. “We have to manage our expectations.”