Florida flights from Ogdensburg signal new competition for Ottawa airport

Allegiant Air, a U.S. air carrier now operating out of Ogdensburg International Airport with service to Florida, could could have an impact on the Ottawa Airport Authority, according to industry analysts.

Allegiant Air begins non-stop service from Ogdensburg to Florida and aims to poach passengers from Ottawa

Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air hopes to attract budget-conscious travellers from Ottawa with flights to Florida from Ogdensurg. (David Becker/Associated Press)

Discount American airline Allegiant Air is hoping its arrival at Ogdensburg International Airport will attract budget-minded travellers from the Ottawa area.

The airline made its first flight at the airport in Ogdensburg, New York, on Wednesday, and although its return flight service is restricted to Florida for now, industry analyst Ian Lee said he thinks the airline's arrival could be felt at Ottawa's airport.

Lee, Carleton University business professor, said the price looks so good, his own family is trying out the service this weekend.

"They got very, very significant savings for the four of them. And, more importantly, it's non-stop," he said.

"Because a lot of the Canadian airlines, they have a few non-stops from Ottawa but most of them are two hops, meaning two flights."

And when you're flying with children, two stops can be problematic, he said.

Any incursion a concern, Ottawa airport says

The Ogdensburg airport received a $25-million US infusion for expansion, mostly from the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States.

Before the arrival of Allegiant, the only passenger airline serving Ogdensburg was Cape Air, which operates nine-seat Cessnas.

Allegiant's initial impact on Ottawa's airport might not be big, but Ottawa Airport Authority vice-president Krista Kealey said any incursion is of concern because it could mean a drop in revenues.

The Ottawa International Airport has seen a steady decline in the number of international passengers in recent years. (See graph at bottom of story).

Banking on Ottawa

Officials from Ogdensburg hope the airport investment will pay off in several ways.

"An independent study estimates that between 110,000 and 210,000 Canadians from the Ottawa market could be served by the expanded service at the airport. The authority's plan to bring a low-cost carrier to the airport is directed at increasing revenues for the airport, as well as increasing bridge traffic and toll revenues, thereby helping to stimulate the local economy," according to the Ogdensburg airport's annual report for 2016.

Flights cost as little as $75 each way but people will pay more for booking last-minute and there's a fee for all baggage, including carry-ons. There are also $6-a-day parking fees and toll charges.

So, the savings might not be as dramatic as that one-way price on the website suggests, according to Kealey.

Krista Kealey, V-P of the Ottawa Airport Authority, says government stimulus in the United States has been earmarked for airport expansion, something not available to Canadian airports. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

"When you're looking at some of these loss-leader fares that Allegiant is offering out of Ogdensburg, they're making it up somewhere else. They're making it up on ancillary fees, things like baggage fees, seat selection, priority seating, food, if it's available at all," Kealey said.

Airport Taj Mahals

But Lee thinks Canadians could be paying less for airfares if airport authorities here were more accountable to passengers and focused more on delivering cheap fares and less on cosmetic airport upgrades.

"It's a board of directors that's self-perpetuating, it's not elected by the people like the mayor or councillors or members of Parliament. And so if they want to jack up the landing fees, they have the right to do so ... Because they have the ability to borrow against landing fees, they went and did, and a lot of them built really nice, lovely, lovely airports.

"I call them Taj Mahals. And somebody's paying for it. And the answer is, that's you and me," said Lee. 

For its part, the Ottawa airport authority puts much of the blame on the federal government.

"We definitely have a different situation in Canada. The U.S. model is one of government subsidy," Kealey said.

"And so you see the U.S. government doing a lot of economic stimulus by funding airport expansions, funding new routes, that sort of thing ... Our model is very much a user pay model. And so the user is paying some of the charges and we also earn through non-aeronautical revenues to help keep our costs low."