Ottawa's airport authority is projecting that 5.6 million passengers will use the city's international terminal by 2030, up from three million last year.
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The Ottawa International Airport is eyeing a potential expansion as passenger volumes rebound from the pandemic, the facility’s CEO says. “Right now, (the terminal) is at capacity in the morning and the evening,” Mark Laroche said during the Ottawa International Airport Authority’s annual public meeting on Wednesday afternoon. “We have to start preparing for an expansion – we just have to determine when. We have to start thinking about it today.” In response to a question from Ottawa Coun. Riley Brockington about whether the lingering effects of the pandemic will alter the airport’s long-term master plan, Laroche said the airport authority is launching a study to determine when it will be necessary to expand the terminal that opened in 2003. “We do not have any places for aircraft to gate in the morning right now,” he said. “The problem that we have right now is between those (morning and evening) peaks. That’s a possibility that, for example, an airline like Porter may fill in those peaks.” Laroche’s remarks came near the end of a meeting that generally had an upbeat tone as officials reported that the terminal’s passenger volumes and revenues rose dramatically in 2022. “The future is bright at YOW,” Laroche said, referring to the airport by its call letters. Just under three million passengers used the Ottawa airport in 2022, up 155 per cent from the previous year. That’s still well below the total of 5.1 million travellers who passed through the terminal in 2019, the year before the pandemic, but Laroche said the airport “made good progress” in hitting its goal of achieving 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels of traffic in a year in which COVID-related travel restrictions weren’t fully lifted until October. Laroche cited a “revived appetite for travel and YOW’s expanding route map” for the uptick in traffic. At the same time, the airport is projecting it won’t return to pre-pandemic levels of activity until 2025. The airport is predicting about four million passengers will use the facility this year, a 33 per cent increase from 2022, with traffic expected to increase to 4.75 million in 2024. By 2030, the airport authority is projecting that 5.6 million passengers will fly through YOW. Part of that projected growth is fuelled by new routes such as Porter’s new flights to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and Air France’s non-stop trips to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, which are slated to run five times a week starting in late June. Still, Laroche stressed that there is “no guarantee” that Air France will continue the Ottawa-Paris flights beyond the first year. He said it’s up to Ottawans to prove the route is viable by booking tickets. “We need to understand that this is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition,” Laroche said. “It will continue as long as it’s making a profit and as long as people are using it. We’re hoping that the pickup in the summer will demonstrate that there is real demand for the fall and winter.” After losing a total of nearly $90 million in 2020 and 2021 as traffic volumes plummeted amid the pandemic, the airport trimmed its net loss to $4.8 million last year. Its revenues jumped to $111.8 million, nearly double the previous year’s total of $56.6 million. While leisure travel is bouncing back, business trips have yet to return to pre-COVID levels, Laroche noted. With the threat of a recession still looming and the federal government looking to cut back on travel, he said the airport is projecting that business traffic will reach only 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2024. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a lag in the number of business passengers arriving and departing the airport as the National Capital Region adjusts for the use of digital meetings and remote work activities,” the airport authority said in its annual report released this week. “The composition of the airport’s local market with a large component of the community in ongoing remote work arrangements may cause a lag in the return of business passengers as compared to other large airports in Canada in the near term.” Laroche reiterated that airlines will resume flights to U.S. and European destinations that have been scrapped only if they see a financial upside to flying out of YOW. “If business wants routes going to the West Coast of the U.S., we have to have that data and that evidence, and I’m sure that those aircraft will come to Ottawa,” he said. Laroche also noted that U.S.-based carriers American and Delta have yet to restore routes from YOW to hubs like Detroit and Philadelphia that were shelved during the pandemic. He said it remains to be seen whether those flights, which used smaller commuter aircraft, will be re-established. “Unfortunately, the economics of a small jet aircraft of 50-75 seats are terrible,” he said.