Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Envisioning Villeneuve

As most Edmontonians are aware (unless you have been on Mars for the past year, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears,) Edmonton City Centre Airport is closing. This has raised a lot of questions and uncertainty for a lot of folks, especially those who work at the airport, but the one that I am asking most often is "What will happen to the small general aviation aircraft using the airport?"

The most common response I get is "Traffic can easily be accommodated at Villeneuve."

For those who don't know what "Villeneuve" is, this is Villeneuve:

If you've never been there, it's located 10 minutes from the west city limit of St. Albert on highway 633 (Villeneuve Road) or accessible north from the Yellowhead on highway 44, a 37 minute car trip from downtown Edmonton.

Having flown into many airports around Alberta and Saskatchewan during my nine years as a private pilot, it's my opinion that Villeneuve, as it exists today in the above photo, is not much to look at. The runways are short, there's no running water on site, and there's not a great deal of hangar space. The site does have a lot of potential, but if the City Centre Airport were shutdown completely tomorrow, I would have serious doubts about the long term survival of the general aviation industry in the area.

I propose completing three actions which will help general aviation stay viable and relevant in the Capital Region:

1. Expansion of Villeneuve to include the following:

-Runway 08/26 widened to 150' and lengthened to 6000'

-Runway 16/34 lengthened to 5000', intersecting with 08/26

-A category I instrument landing system on runway 26 (back course approach on 08)

-A permanently constructed terminal building, replacing the modular building which currently serves as the terminal

-Running water on the site

-ATC hours extended. Right now, tower closes at 9 PM. Needs to be open until at least 11 PM and start earlier.

In order to attract and retain businesses, the facility itself must be attractive. I believe the location of Villeneuve is a red herring; Springbank Airport is a 30 minute drive from downtown Calgary and has come along in leaps and bounds over the last five years. This is because Calgary Airport Authority is making good on its ambitious 20 year plan for the site, which aims to increase the airport's capacity to more than 300,000 movements per year.

I think closure of Edmonton City Centre Airport would face much less opposition if the city immediately reached out to Sturgeon County and Edmonton Airports and got Villeneuve going. Fixed dates, fixed assets. Saying "Here's a drawing of T-Hangars (the aviation equivalent of the 1200 sq. ft home) and a promise of someday" doesn't count. To make it viable takes effort, and the future growth plan on the Edmonton Airports webpage is not it.

One really important thing to note is that the airport is currently using only 162 of 573 hectares. This leaves a huge amount of land for future runways and other developments as needed. Given that the Edmonton City Centre Airport occupies 217 hectares, there is obviously potential to turn Villeneuve into a much bigger and better facility than ECCA.

Of course, the ILS and the ATC are up to NavCanada, which is a private not-for-profit company, but I strongly believe they'll be more willing to make the investment if Edmonton Airports makes the investment.

Do the market analysis, review other successful GA airports, hire somebody to get it done.

2. The reduction of the landing fee at YEG for aircraft with fewer than 6 seats.

Edmonton International Airport offers great services to GA aircraft already. It's too bad that these aircraft are charged a minimum fee of $50 to land at the International to take advantage of said services.

Edmonton International can also handle a large increase in traffic. In fact, Springbank is a busier airport traffic-wise, and charges no landing fee to all piston aircraft. Low landing fees encourage greater use by general aviation aircraft according to COPA which in turn pours dollars into the airport businesses and the local economy by extension. In fact, landing fees have been shown to actually decrease airport revenue. For further details, please see COPA's guide to public airports. This report also mentions Edmonton City Centre, which, in 2006 sought a move to encourage light aircraft to use the field, driving up land lease revenues. Edmonton Airports eliminated the $15/seat landed seat fee for private aircraft with six or fewer seats and eliminated the landing fee for aircraft with four or fewer seats.

I would actually like to see the landing fee for piston aircraft at Edmonton International abolished completely for a period of five years following complete closure of City Centre Airport and/or while waiting for upgrades at Villeneuve to be completed. At a minimum, I would like to see it immediately reduced and restructured to a level that is more in line with comparably sized airports throughout Canada.

3. The creation of a "General Aviation Capital Reserve Fund" by the City of Edmonton.

The City has indicated in reports that the City Centre Airport would have required $35M in capital investment in the near future for the repaving of both runways. It is important for the city to realize that it cannot shirk its obligations to provide general aviation infrastructure in the Capital Region by closing the airport. That's why I propose setting up a capital reserve fund of $35M using the proceeds from the sale of the YXD lands, which have been quoted as being worth up to $500M. Edmonton Airports has already offered tenants at City Centre $20 million toward the construction of new hangars. This new fund would be designed to complete additional general aviation capital projects at all three airports (EIA, Cooking Lake, and Villeneuve) in the region.

I know that these actions will do nothing to satisfy those who want a return of scheduled service to Edmonton City Centre Airport, but in the meantime, it will go a long way toward mending fences with an industry that believes it is misunderstood and undervalued by the city. In fact, I believe that if something to these effects had been done prior to the July 8, 2009 vote of city council, the lawsuits and the petition might not have happened.

In any case, I strongly encourage you to attend the free Fly-In and barbecue at Villeneuve on August 21, check out the facility, and let the representatives from Edmonton Airports know that you support the growth and sustainability of general aviation in the region.