Airport manager Parm Sidhu

Abbotsford Airport hit hard by COVID-19 pandemic

Airport manager Parm Sidhu believes airport is in a great position to thrive when normalcy returns

Abbotsford International Airport (YXX) is one of the largest economic drivers in the city. And as more flights have been added in recent years, it has become an increasingly important part of the region’s social and economic transportation infrastructure.

In 2019, traffic at YXX exceeded one million passengers for the first time. It was a major milestone and capped five years of exponential growth that saw passenger numbers double during that period.

Then came 2020. The pandemic has hit many industries and sectors hard, but few have had to deal with as many changes as the air transportation sector.

Borders have been closed. Unprecedented travel restrictions have been imposed. And many people have either been scared to travel or – as conventions are cancelled, meetings are moved online, and tourist destinations close – just found themselves with no need to do so.

But despite all that turmoil, airport general manager Parm Sidhu believes the airport is in a position to thrive when normalcy resumes.

“We believe we’re going to have a significant role to play in the recovery period,” he says. “We believe ultra-low-cost carriers will continue to make travelling affordable and accessible for Canadians.”

Domestic flights – always YXX’s bread and butter – have continued into and out of the airport. Regular destinations still include Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton and Toronto, with a restoration of many previous destinations anticipated to be added during the pandemic recovery cycle..

Passenger numbers in 2020 are forecast to be only about one-third of what they were in 2019, with about 323,000 people expected to pass through the terminal.

But while everyone is expecting COVID-19 to continue to impact business throughout the winter, Sidhu expects a bounce-back year as 2021 progresses.

“If you look at the data from other parts of the world over the summer … the pent-up demand for visiting friends and family is going to be significant,” Sidhu said, noting that the airport’s ultra-low-cost carrier-focused business model revolves around precisely those types of travellers. “We do believe our business model is going to be excellent for the recovery.”

The airport hasn’t only been surviving; it’s been laying the groundwork for continued growth and success once the world gets back to normal – whenever that may be.

YXX recently spent $5 million on expanding its terminal and is in the midst of an $8.5 million expansion for its bag room that will streamline baggage-handling operations for the airlines.

“People won’t necessarily see that improvement, but the airlines, the ground-handling agents and the capacity and throughput of that bag room will be set up for success for a long, long time,” Sidhu says. “We’ll continue to invest in infrastructure as passengers come back.”

Sidhu noted that many of the people taking flights into and out of Abbotsford aren’t locals, but choose the airport because of the low fares. And those people end up contributing to Abbotsford’s economy.

“A growing airport means the region is vibrant and growing. This is one of the most livable regions in North America.”

The airport isn’t just all about jets and airplanes, though.

In recent years, it has become a hub for bus travel. Prior to COVID-19, there were five shuttle buses a day running between the airport and SkyTrain, giving those without a car, or those who wanted to leave their vehicle at home, an easy way to get to their flight. There are now bus connections to downtown Vancouver from the airport, which has also become the Abbotsford stop for EBus’s routes between the Interior and Metro Vancouver.

Those new links further build a foundation for future growth.

“The ground transportation is also vital,” he says. “One thing is having the ultra-low-cost fares … but you need a supporting ecosystem of low-cost parking and ground transportation and we have that.”

Around 1,500 employees, many in well-paying jobs that require higher education, are employed at the airport.

Many large aerospace companies also call the airport home: Conair, Chinook Helicopters, Marshall Aerospace, Cascade Aerospace, Shell Aerocentre, Alpine Airtech, Westview Aviation, Coastal Pacific Aviation, Campbell Helicopters, Bakerview Aviation and Sequoia Helicopters all have facilities on the 1,250-acre site.

In August, the U.S. military awarded a contract worth as much as $374 million to Cascade and Marshall to maintain the military’s KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft for at least the next five years.

And the area’s aerospace cluster continues to grow: there has been a new greenfield development each year since 2015.

“We’re an economic enabler and we partner with people who want to invest here in land and buildings,” Sidhu says. “These investments – the new hangars and new buildings – bring jobs here.”

While there have been fewer passengers this year, the airport’s runways remain extremely busy. Indeed, it’s one of the top-five airports in Canada based on the number of aircraft movements.

Sidhu says there has been a noticeable increase in the number of private corporate jets flying into the airport.

The airport is itself owned and run by the City of Abbotsford; the city purchased it two decades ago for the low sum of just $10. These days, it consistently turns a profit, allowing it to use those funds to improve the site for passengers and airlines.

YXX is home to many events, including one of the top 10 airshows in the world, the Abbotsford International Airshow. Many of those have been cancelled or restricted visitors over the last year, but Sidhu anticipates their return as soon as next year.

“We do see light at the end of the tunnel,” Sidhu says. “It’s a long tunnel, but there is light.”