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The important questions go unasked in airport project

The latest expansion plan at the Region of Waterloo International Airport, doubling its size, arrived with much fanfare. If the track record is any indicator, the millions of dollars will be swept under the rug at some point in the future.

The if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach has come up short every time, but officials will undoubtedly maintain this time will be different.

Right now, the region claims passenger traffic will reach a million in the next couple of years, despite the fact the numbers were already in decline pre-pandemic, to 80,000 in 2018. The peak was 154,000 in 2015.

Still, the region’s airport master plan approved in 2017 calls for $375 million in spending at the airport. The plan had based much of the work on meeting increases in passenger volumes, but council has scrapped that in favour of spending on a wing and a prayer.

Most alarmingly, taxpayers already on the hook for annual operating losses face yet more subsidies even if the planned revenue increases do somehow materialize. They’ll also be saddled with ever-growing debt and debt-servicing charges to pay for the capital expenditures, which will never be recouped.

While a few regional councillors voted against the latest spending, noting the past failures, the majority pushed ahead. Not once in the discussion was the most fundamental question asked: why does the region need an airport? It’s not as though travellers are without nearby options, ones that offer far more flights and, historically, much better rates.

Also absent: When do taxpayers stop subsidizing operational costs at the airport? When do all the capital costs get paid back to public coffers? How much money is returned to public coffers in the form of direct taxation each year? Does this amount cover the costs of the airport (operational and capital)? Every past forecast of increased traffic and revenue has come up short, why is this time different? What happens if/when the airport again fails to reach the passenger/revenue targets? Who is held accountable and what tangible repercussions will follow?

These same kind of questions go unasked with many government projects, essential or, as with the airport, non-essential.

Right now, especially, it makes no sense to be spending money on the airport given the extreme losses the industry is experiencing due to the pandemic. Some of the changes may be permanent, particularly when it comes to remote meetings replacing business travel, a practice that has also been hit by heightened environmental concerns.

As with a number of work-related practices in a post-pandemic world, business travel is expected to take a permanent hit, though how big the impact will be is up in the air. Some have suggested business travel will decline by half, while even those in the industry predict the new normal will be 10 to 20 per cent lower than the pre-pandemic numbers.

The pandemic has not been kind to the global airline industry as a whole. That’s especially true in Canada, which has been subjected to more stringent restrictions and lockdowns, particularly in relation to the U.S.

The local airport’s share of the business is a tiny slice, but the trend is likely to have an impact on every facet of the industry.

A number of the past airline services in Breslau have been aimed squarely at business travellers – vainly, in the end – which is less likely to drive passenger numbers. While the convenience is high for residents, the relatively few flight options means we have to look to flights from other locations.

Therein lies the rub: the region has spent millions of dollars upgrading the facility to largely little avail. A number of airlines have attempted to offer service from Breslau over the years, most eventually winding down.

But this time will be different, of course. Taxpayers have seen this in-flight (horror) movie before.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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