Airport passenger figures soar

SAINT JOHN - A record-breaking number of travellers used the Saint John Airport in 2008, says airport president and CEO Bernard LeBlanc.

                                         

Bernard LeBlanc, president and CEO for the Saint John Airport, says the passenger figures last year were the highest in two decades.

"It was actually our best year ever for traffic in Saint John. I think the closest we ever came to that traffic-wise is during the frigate program in 1989," LeBlanc said.

"It speaks to the economic activity in the Saint John area."

Word that the airport chalked up the highest number of passengers in its history comes just as WestJet prepares to resume flights to the city. The airline will resume its flights between Saint John and Toronto on Friday.

WestJet plans to kick off its resumption of the flights by hosting a fundraiser on the Market Square boardwalk during the noon hour Friday in support of Romero House. Anyone donating a non-perishable food item or cash donation can take part in a heads-and-tails game that will eventually end up with one person who will win a return trip for two to any regularly scheduled WestJet destination. The fundraiser begins at 12:30 p.m.

Passenger numbers at the Saint John Airport reached more than 245,000 last year, LeBlanc said.

The news is exciting for businesses in the area, said Imelda Gilman, president of the Saint John Board of Trade.

"There's a lot of business happening in our region and in our city right now," Gilman said. "And the airport's contributed to that. So we've been very supportive of our Saint John airport."

The surge in passenger numbers also places the airport in an opportune spot for more flights. LeBlanc said one of the main priorities is to get Calgary-based carrier WestJet flying to Saint John year-round, rather than the seasonal flights it now offers.

"That's going to happen if we really fill our aircraft. So the more we can tell them it's a viable service, the more we can convince them to stay here," LeBlanc said.

WestJet spokeswoman Natalie Green says "demand needs to be sustainable to fly year-round."

And, she said, "We're always watching things closely."

To deal with the upswing in airline traffic at the airport, LeBlanc has filed an application for funding from the federal and provincial governments under the Building Canada Fund.

The airport would use the funding for upgrades to the parking area, terminal building and runway lighting. The airport says the "modest" terminal expansion would allow for counter space for an additional air carrier, which is not possible now because of the building's current size.

"We hope to hear about the results of our application by late June," LeBlanc said.

Area municipalities, economic development agencies and businesses Irving Oil Ltd. and Ganong Bros. Ltd. sent letters of support for the increased airport funding, including Irving Oil Ltd. and Ganong Bros. Ltd.

"The airport is a key asset in terms of making our community more accessible for potential investors and potential workers," said Lesley Macleod, spokeswoman for Irving Oil.

"We believe a strong airport is key to all of us who are working to growing an energy hub for Saint John."

LeBlanc also hopes to secure an agreement soon with air carrier Sunwing Airlines to provide continuing flights to destinations such as Mexico and Cuba. He said passenger numbers for that carrier flying from Saint John jumped from 2,400 three years ago, to 4,000 in the most recent year.

Published Wednesday May 13th, 2009 - Telegraph Journal