Following the news in February that Westjet employees had voted 91 per cent in favour of establishing a new regional airline service to link smaller communities to major centres, Fairmont Hot Springs Airport (FHSA) manager Shawn Jestley was quick to appeal to the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) for support. However, at the RDEK board meeting on Friday, May 4, it became clear that the Canadian Rockies International Airport (CRIA) is the RDEK’s location of choice for such a service.
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that we’ve been backing the [CRIA] for a long time,” RDEK Board Chair Rob Gay said.
The RDEK decided to support the CRIA as the preferred location for the new regional service in a 13-2 vote. The reasoning behind the vote, explained both Gay and RDEK Vice-Chair Gerry Taft, comes down to the amount of infrastructure and funding that has gone into the CRIA over the years.
“The feeling was that with the security systems and the investment that has been put into the CRIA, as well as it being a regional airport for the East Kootenay, that it was a lot more of a logical location,” Taft said. “I think that it was felt that it was just more realistic.”
Westjet public relations manager Robert Palmer told The Valley Echo that more than 30 communities have already expressed interest in receiving the new service, but that Westjet is still a long way away from making any kind of announcement. When asked if it was possible that both the CRIA and the FHSA receive the service, Palmer said the proximity of the two airports made it unlikely.
In terms of deciding between the two airports, Palmer said a large range of factors come into play, from the size of the community to what the local economy is based around.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from communities across Canada,” Palmer said. “[The criteria] is no different from the criteria we look at when we decide where we’re going to put our 737s.”
For his part, Jestley said his facility in Fairmont is completely ready to handle more than the 500 or so movements it currently deals with per year, and that the airport could handle 737s if need be.
But the RDEK has supported the CRIA as the regional airport for a number of years, Gay explained, and that many members of the board had worked hard to get the CRIA to where it is today.
Between 2005 and 2007, the region contributed over $293,900 to the expansion of the CRIA terminals and runway, including $10,000 from Invermere and $5,000 from Radium Hot Springs.
“We didn’t not support [FHSA],” Gay said. “We just said that we’ll stay silent on it. Westjet will make the business decision.”
Taft said that in his role of District of Invermere mayor, when he was approached by Jestley seeking a letter of support for the FHSA, he complied, but when it came time to vote at the RDEK Board Meeting, he in fact voted in favour of supporting the CRIA.
“As much as [Fairmont receiving the service] is a nice idea, and it would be really incredible if it happened, I think we all know that it’s not very realistic or very practical, and the chances of Westjet coming to Fairmont are slim to none,” Taft said. “I think the CRIA makes perfect sense and I think it has a great chance of success… it wouldn’t surprise me if it is one of the top locations on Westjet’s list.”
Westjet is expected to announce the first group of locations either late this year or in early 2013. Jestley has started a petition to bring the service to Fairmont, which can be found at www.petitiononlinecanada.com/petition/bring-westjet-regional-air-service-to-fairmont-hot-springs/921.
The new Westjet regional service is set to begin in late 2013 and will focus on serving smaller communities that don’t have the benefit of Westjet’s 737s. To this end, Westjet announced on May 1 the airline has decided to purchase up to 45 new, smaller planes from the Canadian company Bombardier.