An Airport on Autopilot; A Veil of Secrecy has Shrouded this Canadian Airport

The City of Hamilton, Ontario, has poured millions of dollars into its airport over the past 10 years without once having looked at the financial health of the airport or the private operator that runs it. A Spectator investigation shows the...

In exchange, the city gave TradePort a 10-year grace period before a revenue-sharing formula would kick in.

There have been a number of successes at the airport since 1996.

The year before TradePort took over, passenger volumes at Hamilton's airport were just 13,000 a year.

WestJet's decision in 2000 to make Hamilton its eastern hub sent passenger levels soaring.

In 2003, just over a million passengers passed through the Hamilton airport, although that number declined to about 438,000 last year after WestJet cut more than half of its Hamilton flights.

Some of those flights have been restored and new flights have been added with the arrival of low-cost Air Canada Jazz.

In 1995, Hamilton's direct flight destinations were Pittsburgh and Ottawa.

Today, flights from Hamilton go as far west as Vancouver, as far east as St. John's, N.L., and south to Cancun and the Dominican Republic.

TradePort anticipates that passenger levels will rebound to reach close to 600,000 this year and 670,000 next year.

But it's on the cargo side where Hamilton's airport has seen the steadiest improvement.

The airport is now among the top 10 cargo facilities in Canada, with volumes that nearly doubled between 1995 and 2003, according to TradePort's figures.

Six new cargo hangars have been built at the airport, attracting such tenants as UPS, Cargojet and Jetport.

Critics argue, however, that Hamilton's cargo success has only been achieved because the airport has no restrictions on night flights. It's one of the few Canadian airports that allows flying 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Additional tax revenue to the city from new business at the airport has reached $600,000 a year.

Last year, TradePort told city council that it had invested C$45 million in the airport since it took over operation, and that tenants had invested an additional C$62 million.

The company says the airport's main competitive advantage is that its fees and tariffs are lower than major airports such as Toronto, and that it has managed to upgrade airport facilities to make them comparable to larger airports.

For example, Hamilton now has a CAT-II instrument landing system, which provides a high-tech computerized display that makes runway approaches easier during poor weather.

"Putting that ... system in really helped with landings, because there were some fog issues before," said Paparella. "Now, it's like playing a Nintendo game."

From 1995 to 2005, the city says that jobs directly tied to the airport rose from less than 300 to about 1,700.

"Take a look at where the airport is today and where it was," said Koroscil. "It had been struggling to go anywhere.

"Today, it's now operating not at a loss, but, in fact, the city is gaining from that ... plus the property tax, plus the jobs, the businesses that are here today and the investment," Koroscil added. "There's been $120 million invested in the facility."

But by February 2005, there were cracks forming in the airport's foundation.

Koroscil told the city's planning and economic development committee that Hamilton's hopes for a bonanza of airport jobs and investment are being threatened by increased competition.

"Our competitors all around us are being very aggressive and they won't hesitate to steal what we have today," said Koroscil. "We're already losing business to Kitchener and Brantford, companies that want to be here, but can't stay because we don't have the facilities they need."

He unveiled an airport development master plan for committee members.

It calls on the city to help in purchasing land around the airport, helping to finance the extension of a secondary runway and a new passenger terminal, to push water and sewer services to that land.

TradePort's wish list would cost the city almost $15 million in land purchases alone by 2009.

Koroscil said these points were all raised in the airport master plan and, while some action has been taken, things aren't moving fast enough.

TradePort also raised the fearful "P" word -- Pickering.

Supporters of Hamilton's airport have used the spectre of a planned Pickering airport as the bogeyman under the bed.

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