Vancouver airport best in North America: Too bad it's too expensive

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When Karman Harrop lands at Vancouver International Airport, he appreciates the beauty of the Jade Canoe by Haida artist Bill Reid, the dazzling aquarium and how YVR provides a sense of place few other airports match.

It's no surprise to the retired Telus employee that the Swiss-based Skytrax World Airport Awards recently named YVR the best airport in North America-eighth in the world-for the fourth consecutive year, based on a survey of 12 million travellers worldwide. The airport routinely showcases such accolades, which have helped its services arm secure contracts to manage nearly 20 other airports around the world.

But Harrop is one of the 950,000 passengers from B.C. who shunned YVR last year, instead hopping over the U.S. border to fly out of Bellingham and Seattle, lured by cheaper airfares. "I think Vancouver is a gem. It's really breathtaking when you arrive home," he says. "But at some point you give in to the laws of economics."

Passengers arriving at swanky Vancouver International Airport (Photo:Larry Goldstein)

Passengers arriving at swanky Vancouver International Airport (Photo:Larry Goldstein)

Fares out of Bellingham and Seattle to many U.S. and overseas destinations can be 30-70% less than what is available at YVR depending on the season. The price difference can add up to $1,000 for a family of three or four people flying to Palm Springs or Maui. Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers' Association of Canada, says British Columbians are more concerned with the price of airfares than with whether YVR bags more awards. "We judge an airport by what its value is to the local clientele. And I think our airport falls sadly short."

The price gap behind the rise of cross-border airfare shopping, according to Tae Oum, a professor at the University of B.C., stems from Canada's higher fuel prices, wages, asset prices, landing and terminal fees and air traffic control charges. Canadian airlines also tend to charge a higher markup than their counterparts in the U.S., where the aviation market is more competitive.

One fee that has become crucial to YVR's ambitions and a lightning rod for consumer discontent is the Airport Improvement Fee (AIF), which rose from $15 to $20 last year for passengers travelling outside of B.C. Whereas U.S. airports rely heavily on funding from government for infrastructure, Canadian airports are forced to borrow or raise fees, explains YVR senior vice-president Tony Gugliotta.

YVR's key goal over the next decade is to become even more of gateway for Asian travelers flying to North American destinations, Gugliotta says. The airport is in the middle of a $600-million program designed to reduce the amount of time it takes for passengers to transit through its terminals. The AIF covers half the cost of the project, which includes high-speed baggage systems and moving walkways.

Many B.C. travellers couldn’t care less about how the AIF is helping YVR secure its position in the lucrative and fast-growing Asian market, counters Cran. "The people we hear from in Vancouver don't give a damn about making a better experience for transfers through this airport if they have to pay for it."

Gugliotta acknowledges that the loss of business to airports in Washington State is a concern. "If we don't have a strong domestic or U.S. network," he says, "the [Asian] gateway doesn't work."

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