Windsor airport taking off

(Windsor Star, Ellen van Wageningen, September 7, 2012)

Jim and Kathy Bliss were impressed.

The Clarkston, Mich., couple drove across the border and flew out of Windsor’s airport for the first time Friday. “It was cheaper by about $500 to fly out of here rather than (Detroit) Metro and a lot less stops,” Jim said as they prepared to check their bags with WestJet and head out for a visit with friends on Vancouver Island. In 12 days they’ll fly back with Air Canada.

Windsor International Airport is having a record summer thanks to an improved economy and folks, like the Blisses, who are discovering it’s a good deal. By the end of the year, close to a quarter million passengers will have flown in and out of Windsor – the most in at least a decade. “July for us was a record month” with 24,400 travellers coming through the airport, said president and CEO Federica Nazzani. She didn’t have the final numbers Friday, but traffic through the airport in August – typically the best month of the year – is expected to have been even heavier. “It’s a great story because obviously we’ve done this through some of the worst economic times. We’re probably the fastest growing – by percentage anyway – airport in Canada,” she said. It is a signature moment in a slow, steady climb toward Nazzani’s ambitious goals to expand business and revenues.

From 2007 to the end of 2011, the airport doubled its share of flights taken by travellers from Windsor, Essex County and the west side of Chatham-Kent. One contributor to that has been the start of regular service to Toronto by Porter Airlines in 2011, providing competition to Air Canada’s regional carrier, Express. “We’ve been in Windsor for a little over a year and we’re quite happy with it,” said Porter spokesman Brad Cicero. “We’ve brought a lot of traffic through there with up to three flights a day in and out of the airport.”

While business travellers provide Porter’s base, it is getting a good boost from leisure traffic out of Windsor, as well, he said. WestJet, which returned in 2009, provides the third regular service out of Windsor with daily flights to and from Calgary from May to October. The Calgary-based airline is purchasing smaller planes for short-haul regional service, but whether Windsor will be on its radar for year-round coverage remains to be seen, said Nazzani, who was flying to Calgary on Friday for a conference and a meeting with WestJet officials.

In fact, she said she is reluctant to pitch the idea of another regular service to Toronto without the demand to support it. Higher up on her priority list are more flights by the current carriers between Windsor and Ontario’s capital. “What we want to do is capture more market share,” Nazzani said. There’s plenty more to go after with local travellers taking 1.4 million air trips a year, according to the most recent statistics gathered by Windsor airport.

Despite its progress, the bulk are still driving to Toronto to catch North American and international flights from there, Nazzani said. Another 38 per cent are flying out of Detroit, mostly to U.S. destinations. If Windsor wants to attract some of that traffic it will take stepped up marketing of the airport and regional attractions, fares that are competitive with those in the U.S. where taxes are lower and flights to more air hubs, Nazzani said. Direct flights to Montreal and an eastern U.S. hub, like Chicago, New York or Washington, are on her wish list. So are more charters and tours. Currently, only Sunwing offers flights to Cuba.

Nazzani is preparing to give an economic impact update to city council, which contributes an $324,000 management fee to the airport’s $4-million annual operating budget. She wasn’t prepared to share all the details Friday, but noted that the report that is currently being finalized shows the airport provides 381 full-time equivalent jobs – including administration, airline staff, aircraft ground crews, property maintenance staff and car rental companies.

While local travellers are the main focus, Nazzani said there is no doubt Windsor could attract more U.S. passengers, who currently make up about 10 per cent of the total. “There should be much more,” she said, especially now that competition out of Windsor is making flying within Canada a better deal. Vincent Schroeder, of Dresden, Germany, said he found flying through Windsor cheaper than into any Detroit area airport when he booked his return ticket from Frankfurt nine months ago. “Before that I didn’t even know Windsor had an airport,” said Schroeder, who flew out Friday after spending two months with friends in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Windsor International Airport is holding a free open house Sept. 29 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Members of the public will be able to tour the general aviation areas and maintenance hangars, as well as see aircraft on the ground and in the air.