Have business, will travel? Airport boss urges execs to get off Zoom, get on planes

Ottawa airport
Ottawa airport

An uptick in summer leisure travel has given the city’s airport a much-needed lift as it looks to navigate its way out of the financial doldrums – but the facility is “still not out of the woods” as business passenger loads remain well below pre-pandemic levels, the CEO of the Ottawa International Airport Authority said Tuesday.

Mark Laroche said about 10,000 passengers used the terminal on peak days in August, up substantially from a year ago and within about 70 per cent of 2019 levels.

Laroche said the resurgence of summer vacation traffic in 2022 has brightened the financial outlook for the airport, which racked up total losses of almost $90 million over the past two fiscal years as passenger volumes plummeted.

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But he warned that the airport, which drew more than five million passengers in 2019, won’t fully recover until more business executives stop logging on Zoom and start jumping on planes to meet customers face-to-face.

“We’re seeing some business travel, but obviously not to the same level as before,” Laroche told OBJ on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m not saying that people shouldn’t use technology, but we’re looking forward to business travel getting back.”

“I’m not saying that people shouldn’t use technology, but we’re looking forward to business travel getting back.”

The airport authority is projecting that the not-for-profit facility won’t hit the break-even point until at least the second quarter of 2023. A spike in business commuters would go a long way to helping it get there, Laroche said.

“We’re not in financial distress, but we’re still not out of the woods,” he cautioned. “We’re hoping for a strong fall. We’re still not satisfied with where we are.”

While many local business leaders have been pushing for U.S. carriers to reinstate flights to southern cities that were scrapped early in the COVID-19 crisis, Laroche said a shortage of pilots has forced some airlines to jettison routes that rely on smaller aircraft to serve second-tier destinations such as Ottawa.

Delta, for example, has yet to resume service to Canada’s capital from its U.S. hubs.

“We’re doing as much as we can to encourage (U.S. airlines) to do so, but they have to make that business decision,” Laroche said.

Limited U.S. options

A potential partnership with the City of Ottawa and Ottawa Tourism to create an “air service development fund” aimed at enticing airlines to add more routes to the capital is still in the early planning stages, he added.

Laroche said until the airport has the financial wherewithal to offer such incentives – something other Canadian terminals like the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport are now doing – air travellers looking to head south directly from Ottawa will have limited options.

“It certainly puts the Ottawa airport at a disadvantage,” he added. “That’s a conversation that’s going to have to take place, and hopefully we can get there at some point.”

Meanwhile, the airport and many of its partners are scrambling to hire more baggage handlers, security screeners and other personnel to meet renewed demand.

The airport authority is currently looking to fill about 20 open positions after laying off dozens of employees at the outset of the pandemic. Other companies such as Air Canada, Porter Airlines, security firm Garda and NAV Canada, the non-profit corporation that provides air traffic control services at the airport, are also eager to recruit workers.

Hotel still in works

In response, the airport authority hosted a one-day job fair on Aug. 17 that attracted more than 1,000 people, Laroche said, adding the turnout was “beyond our expectations.”

Meanwhile, Laroche said he hopes the city’s move to designate the airport a “special economic district” earlier this summer will spur more privately funded development. The city approved an airport-specific Community Improvement Plan aimed at encouraging businesses to invest in the facility.

In particular, Laroche said he hopes the initiative will kickstart construction of a new hotel linked to the airport terminal. He said Quebec-based Group Germain remains committed to building a 180-room hotel under the Alt banner, a development that’s been on hold since the start of the pandemic.

“There’s still a lot of interest,” he said of the project. “We’ve been trying to get a hotel built on (to) the terminal for the last 10 years or so. We’re hoping that the (Community Improvement Plan) will help us bring it over the line and finally get one.”

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