Airport navigates through challenging times

Canadian Helicopters aircraft are lined up near the air traffic tower at the Penticton Regional Airport this week. Unlike some of the other local companies, Canadian expects to weather the current economic downturn in the aviation industry. - Mark Brett/Western News
Canadian Helicopters aircraft are lined up near the air traffic tower at the Penticton Regional Airport this week. Unlike some of the other local companies, Canadian expects to weather the current economic downturn in the aviation industry.
— image credit: Mark Brett/Western News

Another committee is being struck to look at marketing strategies for Penticton Regional Airport.

The announcement comes on the heels of the closure of one airport-based aviation company and the pending shutdown of another.

According to Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton, the new board will differ from the most recent unsuccessful committee in that it will be city run.

“What we’re looking at is the marketing end of it and that’s what has to be done,” said the mayor. “There needs to be substantially more human resources put towards the marketing end of the airport and the possibilities and opportunities it presents.

“That (previous committee) was a chamber board and times have changed. There were issues that were taking place back then that aren’t taking place now.”

Like the last group, the new one will be regional in nature to incorporate a wide variety of concerns from the Okanagan and Similkameen areas that are or could be serviced by the facility.

One of the major problems raised in the past by aviation companies interested in locating at Penticton Airport was the lack of serviced property available.

Because it is operated by Transport Canada neither regional nor city governments have any jurisdiction over what can physically be done to attract new business.

The mayor added he would eventually like to see something similar to the Arlington, Wash. airport which has a mix of manufacturing and flight services.

Penticton economic development officer David Arsenault still sees great potential for the airport, especially if another carrier could be found to provide direct service between Penticton and Calgary.

Pacific Coastal Airlines had offered the route for just over a year but discontinued it in early 2008 due to low passenger volume.

However, the economic development officer feels recent developments in the South Okanagan would make the Alberta connection more viable now.

Meanwhile the lingering poor economic climate in the aviation industry is being blamed in large part for the owners of Southern Skies calling it quits and those at Kittyhawk Maintenance Centre deciding to do the same.

Fortunately officials of two of the remaining businesses, Canadian Helicopters and Eclipse Helicopters, while also feeling the slowdown, expect to weather the storm.

“The loss in revenue is huge and there’s no doubt we’re feeling the pinch,” said Jan Rustad, Canadian’s Penticton manager of business development. “It’s certainly got our attention but fortunately for us I have enough irons in the fire so when one country is not be able to meet up with contract obligations we’re blessed to have revenue or contracts starting from other areas.”

Most of the company’s business comes from international government agencies for helicopter pilot flight instruction.

The European economic crisis has had a serious impact and the American market has dried up substantially added the manager.

Rustad noted the company is anticipating a turnaround and is going ahead with previously announced expansion plans at the current site.

Eric Stoof has operated Eclipse since 1999 and has seen similar problems in the past, although none as serious as the current one.

“Money is the problem and we’re (aviation) kind of at the top of the food chain,” he said. “We’re an expensive service and it’s the first one that gets cut.

“There’s always going to be stuff that has to get done and will get done but any of the extras they just put aside. It’s the reality of aviation, it really is.”

Kittyhawk’s Ray Molland feels skyrocketing costs are turning private aircraft ownership into a “rich man’s game” severely impacting his business and compounding the problem with the loss of Southern Skies.

With a very high vacancy rate in his hangers he is looking at selling the facilities to non-aviation interests.

“I do think the airport will survive because it is a Ministry of Transportation airport and for that reason alone,” he said. “Maybe it would be best to put up a strip mall or an industrial park because there is not the need for aviation on the airport right now.”


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