Relief is on the way

Construction begins on $198-million expansion at Fort McMurray Airport

For proof about how oil and Fort McMurray, Alta., are strongly intertwined, all you need do is look at oil prices versus annual passenger traffic statistics from Fort McMurray Airport.

For five of the past six years, the average price of a barrel of oil has risen. For five of the past six years, passenger activity at the regional airport has also risen. The only time each dropped was during the dark days of the recession in 2009. And now, as the economy has picked up and the world's thirst for crude is expected to grow, it is little wonder that passenger activity is expected to continue the upward trend as well.

A $198-million expansion project now underway should bring some much-needed relief. Construction has begun on a 14,000-square-metre terminal building-nearly five times bigger than the current terminal-in a new location south of the existing runway. Plans also call for a new apron (an area where planes can be parked) as well as more passenger parking. If everything goes according to plan-tendering closed in mid-July and a contract was to be awarded about the time this issue went to press-everything should be finished by April 2014.

Stantec Inc. is the project manager.

"Our terminal building was built in the mid-1980s," explains Sally Warford, chief operating officer of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority. "It was built for 250,000 people [a year]. Last year, we had passenger volumes of 714,000. We're going to be close to 750,000 this year."

The airport authority expects it's just a matter of time before the airport joins the handful of Canadian airports that handle one million or more passengers a year. While some may have laughed a decade ago at the notion that Fort McMurray's airport would see that many passengers annually, who could have predicted the amount of oilsands activity we're now seeing?

The reality is that the existing terminal building was designed for a peak-hour maximum of 200 people, according to the airport authority's 2010 annual report. The current peak demand, however, requires holding space for 300. The new building addresses that and will have a peak-hour capacity of over 400.

"It will [have the capacity to] handle almost a million and a half passengers once it opens," Warford says. "The current drawings [include] three bridges-it could have four. The apron will match that size of a facility."

Those using the new terminal will enter from an access road that will be constructed off Highway 69. A large parking lot will be built nearby.

There will be 1,700 spaces "to begin with," says Warford, who adds that it's not unusual now to have 1,500 cars parked in and around the current lot on long weekends or holidays.

"Car parking will have electricity," she says. "Right now, we don't-not all the stalls have plug-in capability."

In addition to relieving the passenger space crunch, the new terminal building will have an area for retail businesses so customers can purchase food and drinks. And, with an eye towards the future, the airport authority has had meetings with the Canada Border Services Agency to make sure the building would have adequate space for a customs area should the airport offer direct flights to the United States or other countries in the future. Warford says that of the top 32 airports in Canada, only Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie, Alta., do not have a customs area. The airport authority has a goal of obtaining international and U.S. charter services as early as this year. Mexico and Las Vegas are the primary targets.

The current terminal building will remain once construction is completed on the new one.

Should the growth trend continue, flyers could eventually expect to see another runway built. When that happens, however, is anyone's guess.

Says Warford, "That's off in the future-till this one meets its capacity. It could take us 15 years. It could take 30."

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