Pressure grows to reopen Kelowna Airport to international flights

·3 min read
The Kelowna International Airport handles 1.4 million passengers a year.  (YLW - image credit)
The Kelowna International Airport handles 1.4 million passengers a year. (YLW - image credit)

Interior B.C. civic and tourism leaders say tens of millions of dollars in revenue and post-pandemic regional economic recovery are at risk unless the federal government restores international flights to Kelowna International Airport (YLW).

"The international flights are very very frustrating for me, to be honest with you," airport director Sam Sammadar told CBC Radio West host Sarah Penton.

Sammadar said routes from Kelowna to sun destinations like Cancun, Los Cabos and Varadero by carriers like WestJet are planned out, but without the approval of Transport Canada, the window for having them over the winter may close.

"And we're in a situation where, if we don't get an answer from the federal government very very soon we will potentially lose those flights. And they're not going to come back anytime soon."

The airport said international flights accounted for up to 30 per cent of the airport's traffic before the pandemic.

YLW has lost more than $2.5 million in revenue since the federal government cancelled international flights to and from Kelowna as a measure to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Tourism leaders say the region risks losing millions of dollars in foreign spending if the airport remains closed this winter season.

"There's a large thirst for people to come up here," said Michael J. Ballingall, senior vice president of Big White Ski Resort.

"The non-stop flights through Seattle into Kelowna have been just a boom for the ski industry over the years and the records will show that," he said, noting many foreign tourists seek direct flights to avoid long customs lineups and connection delays at Vancouver International Airport.

The B.C tourism industry, provincial partner Destination B.C., and federal agency Destination Canada are spending some $3 million this fall on a campaign to attract visitors from overseas to the province.

"We want to kick-start the economic recovery," said Ballingall, adding that a lack of federal government transparency and direction for reopening is creating uncertainty.

"I think we're just stuck in a bureaucratic bungle."

YLW is the 10th busiest airport in Canada by passenger volume, and the only airport in the top 10 which remains barred from accepting foreign routes.

Other smaller airports with less traffic, like Quebec City and Toronto's downtown Billy Bishop Airport, have resumed international travel.

In July, and earlier this week, Kelowna-Lake Country MP Tracy Gray sent letters to Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra asking for clarity and transparency on the criteria and timeline for the resumption of international routes.

"We're simply asking for either reinstatement or disclosure as to what the metrics are in order for the Kelowna International Airport to meet those so they can open up like others are able to," Gray said.

Transport Canada said in a statement that a resumption of international flights is being considered for airports like Kelowna's, but did not say when that might happen.

"Consideration will be given to adding additional airports in the future as conditions dictate; that is, based on demand, operational capacity, the epidemiological situation in Canada and recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency."

As of Friday, Interior Health had 1,129 active cases of COVID-19, which is 19 per cent of active cases across the province.

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