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Friday, 22 July 2011 08:21

Initiative looks to expand airport service and increase revenues

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By Susan Quinlan
Take Off YQL is in its second year of a three-year initiative, generating local interest to attract airline carriers into the County of Lethbridge Airport, stimulating the regional economy.

“We really want to know if the community will support any new routes we develop. By doing these initiatives on the website and with the business community, this is one arrow in the quiver to show carriers we have the community behind them,” said John Hamilton, executive director of Take Off YQL, a county and city-sponsored initiative.

Hamilton said Take Off YQL is trying to show carriers the south has a viable tourism industry that could draw visitors for conventions, sporting events and vacations, and interest in the region can support connections to other main hubs such as Toronto and Vancouver.

The public can demonstrate its support and interest in part by following Take Off YQL on Twitter and FaceBook, suggested Hamilton. As well, participation in contests on the Take Off YQL website could demonstrate local support for additional carriers.

“We work closely with Economic Development Lethbridge. We have the same problems as they do … not being able to attract business because we don’t have a viable airport.”

One current problem in recruiting carriers has to do with the size of planes required.

Back in the late 1980s, Time Air carried about 120,000 passengers annually with regular routes to Kelowna and Edmonton, said Hamilton, then the airline was purchased and flights went to Calgary alone.

With the rise of WestJet came its business model; one airplane type which is too large to be viable in the Lethbridge and area market.

Currently, Air Canada’s Jazz line has a “monopoly” on the Alberta market, said Hamilton, as they have the size of planes ideal for this market.

In addition to encouraging the public to express support, Hamilton said the airport has to be more active in attracting business. For example, a few years back Air Transat ran sun destination flights during the winter, but the airport did nothing to let the community know these flights were available.

“In these days they must get involved and support it. As costs rise and runways need to be maintained, the airport is not making money. There’s less federal money available for support … airports are becoming more entrepreneurial.”

As an example of a small airport success, Hamilton sites that of Fredericton, New Brunswick. With a population of between 40,000 and 45,000, that airport moves 270,000 passengers annually.

“It can be done, if you do your proper marketing and are able to convince the carrier that the community is behind you.”

With 260,000 potential passengers in the Lethbridge and county area, Hamilton is convinced the region can support more flights.

“What we need to produce is a product people want to buy. The premium to fly out of Lethbridge, as opposed to Calgary, is too high.”

To date, Take Off YQL has been getting the word out by advertising in the Lethbridge Herald and on radio, directing people to the website to learn about the initiative and as well enter contests.

The goal is to get regular service from Lethbridge direct to Toronto, Vancouver and a United States hub, said Hamilton, and to also get some charter services flying in as well.

“A couple of U.S. airlines are considering Lethbridge. I am quite hopeful that we’ll be able to achieve our objective. It takes about two years for an airline to make a decision. I’m hoping we’ll get charter service back this winter or next.”

Created in 2010 by the City and County of Lethbridge, the Airport Enhancement and Marketing Initiative (AEMI)/Take Off YQL mission is to enhance airline services at Lethbridge County Airport, and provide affordable and convenient air service to Southern Alberta residents. The AEMI was created to enhance air services to and from the Lethbridge County Airport, diversify and increase the Airport’s revenue, and maintain the community role of the airport.

To learn more about the Take Off YQL initiative or to enter their Prove It Challenge: Why Is Lethbridge a Great Place to Live?, go to the website at Submit an entry in video, audio or essay format, telling or showing your favourite thing in Lethbridge.

The winner will receive a shopping spree at West Edmonton Mall including a flight for two from Lethbridge to Edmonton, a two-night stay at the Fantasyland Hotel and two tickets to Galaxy Land or the Waterpark along with $500 spending money.

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