I’ve worked to keep an open mind about this question since it was reopened after the election. I’ve said until last week that I was still waiting for both sides to make their best arguments, as I didn’t think we had heard them yet. Having heard again from the public and city staff, I’m prepared to say that I’m leaning strongly toward closure.
I’ll admit that the city report from last year painted a pretty rosy forecast for what repurposing the land could mean for the city, and in retrospect folks were right to call it exaggerated. I think this year’s analysis conducted by city administration and consultants is much more realistic (thanks to Mastermaq for compiling all the reports in one place). There are no certainties with land development, but the assumptions and the reasoning appear appropriately conservative after my thorough review. So the argument for the redevelopment scenario has improved from last year. (Edmonton Regional Airport Authority has added some background papers as well here.)
Some of the advocates for saving the airport, including the Alberta Enterprise Group (AEG), raised some fair questions about the analysis, but nothing damning. AEG also retained ASCEND Aviation Consultants to build an ‘Economic Potential’ case for the Muni. They have also argued based on a 2005 study that the airport enables province-wide economic activity of:
- 2,300 jobs (nearly 2,200 person years of employment);
- $164 million in GDP; $388 million in economic output; and
- $99 million in wages.
AEG implies that this economic activity is only possible because of the airport. There is a logical error here since the airport is not a necessary condition for all of this activity, only a portion of it (like aircraft refueling). The airport is merely an enabler for the rest. I questioned AEG representatives about this and they admitted that they didn’t know what the impact of closure would be on the local economy, only that it would affect some of this business, and that the rest would just move around to other airports in the region as people shifted their activity. I would argue that most of this business would still happen, it would just happen differently.
Where Airport Advocates are divided is the question of whether the status quo is working. Most air industry speakers argued that the status quo is untenable. Leisure flyers can live with it as is, but still felt that the airport is slowly dying under the restrictions placed upon it.
Many want the 10 passenger cap for scheduled service raised to 19, restoration of cargo service, easing hanger development restrictions, and resuming customs services for international charters. Lifting these restrictions would be needed for the airport to begin to meet its theoretical potential. They argue philosophically for competition between the airports, forgetting that this is not a true market — it’s a regulated one where the field is among other cities’ international airports, not individual airports within our region.
The Airport Authority takes the position that they’re operating the airport according to the lease with the city, which takes direction from the 1995 referendum on consolidation of scheduled service at the International (or the Leduc Airport, as many Muni advocates refer to it). Some Muni advocates think it’s time to revisit the question of consolidation of scheduled service. Short of a petition with 75,000 signatures on it forcing a plebiscite I don’t see how this is ever going to happen (and I’m fairly certain the consolidation regimen would prevail).
So follow my logic: if the status quo is untenable for all but the jet set, and if expanding scheduled service is not going to happen, that really only leaves one option: closure. This of course should be subject to a number of further conditions about improving access to other airports (Instrument Landing System at Villeneuve for flight training and as an all-weather Medevac alternate for one, express transit connection from South LRT to the International for another).
Will using Villeneuve or the International be less convenient for charter flyers, private pilots and scheduled air users, who use the Muni now? For some, undoubtedly yes. Will all of them take their business elsewhere? It is a risk that some may, however we may reasonably assume that the many reasons why people do business with Edmonton or from Edmonton are strong enough for most to continue to do so.
Incidentally, Villeneuve is only 6 mins further from our Downtown than Springbank general aviation airport is from Calgary’s Downtown.
So what of Medevac? Surely this has been the most sensational issue in the debate. However, I believe from what we’ve heard that Medevac can eventually be accommodated at other airports in the region with no time delay for those who are time critical. First, though, I believe we need written assurance from the Minister of Health that they will make the necessary investments in helicopters, landing pad upgrades, traffic signal priority systems, etc. The issues here are financial, logistical and jurisdictional — and all are Provincial.
In sum, I believe the risks to Medevac patient outcomes and business relationships from eventual closure are low. Intensification of the airport land into a transit-oriented green community for tens of thousands, the end of the height-limiting Airport Protection Overlay over Downtown, plus the unique opportunity to facilitate NAIT expansion combine into a strong case for seizing a once-in-a-generation opportunity for city building.
If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, the historical city-building significance of the site and its heroes ought to be recognized and celebrated.
Council will debate the matter, and may make some decisions on the 8th of July.