Fort McMurray airport losing passengers to Edmonton and Calgary

The Fort McMurray International Airport says it’s losing a portion of its domestic air travellers to airports in Edmonton and Calgary.

More than 18 per cent of Fort McMurray travellers are driving to Edmonton or Calgary to catch flights

Fort McMurray International Airport is trying to attract more area residents to fly locally. (Fort McMurray Airport Authority)

The Fort McMurray International Airport says it's losing a portion of its domestic air travellers to airports in Edmonton and Calgary.

The airport's president and CEO, Roelof-Jan Steenstra, said 733,257 travellers — 82 per cent of flyers within the region — used the local airport in 2016. That means 164,549 Fort McMurray travellers — 18.3 per cent — decided to drive down Highway 63 to use southern airports like in Edmonton and Calgary, he said.

Those passengers who went south represent lost revenue and jobs to the region.

In 2016, the Fort McMurray airport contributed $46 million in wages to the local economy, according to the airport's 2016 Economic Impact Study, released this week.

Steenstra said the Fort McMurray International Airport must remain competitive with its southern neighbours and entice the region's travellers to fly local.

Roelof-Jan Steenstra is president and CEO of the Fort McMurray International Airport. (David Thurton/ CBC)

During the 2017 Christmas season, the Fort McMurray airport will offer free gift-wrapping services and open a Christmas market to encourage local travel.

"Clearly airports compete with each other," Steenstra said. "It is a reality. We are businesses."

'Some people are really struggling'

Geraldine Manuel was waiting in the arrivals area for her daughter who was visiting Fort McMurray last week. Manuel said she prefers to fly from Fort McMurray when she travels, but said not everyone can afford to anymore.

"People that probably aren't using the airline probably are doing it for financial reasons," Manuel said. "Some people are really struggling right now."

Jeff Reece's employer no longer pays for air travel. But Reece, just off a flight from Edmonton, said he prefers to fly rather than make the five-hour drive back to Fort McMurray.

"It works out to be the same price if I drive," Reece said.

A luggage carousel in Fort McMurray's new airport terminal. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Edmonton International Airport spokesperson Traci Bednard couldn't say how many passengers from the Fort McMurray region use the Edmonton airport.

Data from the Fort McMurray International Airport's report shows the Edmonton airport attracted 145,577 passengers from Fort McMurray in 2016.

Bednard said she prefers if Albertans support their local airports because growth in local airports drives growth in bigger cities as well.

"From an Alberta airport's perspective, the strength of Fort McMurray's air service is a benefit to all of Alberta," Bednard said. "From our perspective, we don't see it as competitive."  

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David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.