YVR eyes major market in China

A WestJet airplane prepares to land at Vancouver International Airport Monday night. The airport
A WestJet airplane prepares to land at Vancouver International Airport Monday night. The airport's focus on growth is raising concerns of a local politician.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra

A record number of passengers travelled through Vancouver International Airport last year, and YVR captain Craig Richmond is setting his sights on what he calls "the greatest commercial aviation opportunity in history."

"Expanding service to Asia, particularly China, and capturing more of the Chinese tourism market, is a tremendous opportunity," said Richmond. "I think this is the greatest commercial aviation opportunity in history. It's on our doorstep. The Chinese carriers are tripling the size of their fleets in the next 15 years, and so we can take advantage of that."

Richmond, speaking to city council Monday for the first time as president and CEO, said the airport handled 17.97 million passengers in 2013, up 2.1 per cent. An increase in service to China boosted last year's totals, as did greater regional travel within B.C.

Records are being shattered again in 2014, as YVR had its busiest January on record. Passenger volumes were 8.2 per cent higher than the same month last year.

China Eastern now offers twice daily flights to Shanghai, China Southern recently began offering daily service to Guangzhou and Air China now flies to Beijing 12 times per week, up from its past daily service.

YVR offers a total of 75 flights to China each week—more than any other North American airport—and boosting connections with the world's most populous country is a major plank for YVR, which recently added the Chinese language to its website.

Richmond said he's putting more resources into strengthening business with China, noting the local airport authority has an office in Hong Kong. He said new daily service to Tokyo begins later this month, and YVR has talked with Xiamen Airlines about offering flights from its sister city of Richmond.

"In the next six years in China and other Asian nations there will be 750 million more middle class," he said. "The Chinese airlines are buying (airplanes) and they want someplace to go… It would be a shame for us to miss out on that opportunity."

The Vancouver Airport Authority boss is urging the federal government to help facilitate new business by liberalizing air treaties, simplifying Canada's visa process and ensuring government agencies are equipped to quickly screen growing volumes of passengers.

Airport officials are also increasing the appeal of YVR with a series of ambitious projects, from expanding the terminal and refurbishing Flight Path Park to repaving Russ Baker Way and building a luxury outlet mall on Sea Island. Construction on the mall has begun, and two of three phases are scheduled to be completed by spring 2015.

But Coun. Harold Steves said he's worried what airport growth will do to the environment, noting the planned jet fuel pipeline will soon bring oil tankers to the Fraser River despite stern objections from the city.

"That's going to be a very sore point for decades to come," said Steves, who suggested exploring alternatives and even shifting some air traffic to other airports.

Richmond acknowledged the city's opposition to the pipeline project—which includes a new jet fuel storage facility in the Riverport area of South Richmond—but said YVR doesn't direct airlines where to go, and  growing jobs and business for the region is key to YVR's mandate.

"I think we're probably just going to disagree about growing passenger traffic," he told Steves Monday, adding if the airport doesn't continue to grow it will probably shrink. "If we don't provide the connectivity that airlines want, then they would gradually move away. That has happened to airports in the past."

Richmond said YVR will be working hard to ensure Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation complies with all conditions of the province's approval of the pipeline project. He also noted the project doesn't belong to the airport.

"It's not our pipeline. It's not our fuel. It's a consortium of airlines that run that. It's a difficult one for us," he said. "Obviously the Fraser River is very important to all, and that's why I wanted to make sure that the government looked at it and said they thought it was safe."

Said Steves: "It's not safe. That's the problem."

On Dec. 12, 2013 Transportation Minister Mary Polak announced approval of the $100-million project. The airlines consortium plans to barge fuel up the river to a dock east of No. 6 Road, where it will then be transported to the airport via underground pipeline.

B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office concluded there will be no significant adverse impacts.

Passenger volume at YVR

•2013: 17,971,883

•2012: 17,596,901

•2011: 17,032,780

•2010: 16,778,774

•2009: 16,179,312

•2008: 17,852,459

•2007: 17,495,049

•2006: 16,922,226

•2005: 16,418,883

•2004: 15,725,694

•2003: 14,321,504

* Source: YVR (enplaned and deplaned passengers)

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