Thunder Bay Airport will benefit significantly from a new federal relief program for the country's medium-sized airports.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has announced a temporary expansion of the Airports Capital Assistance Program to support critical infrastructure improvements at airports that had passenger volumes of less than one million in 2019.
Thunder Bay Airport has been allocated up to $13 million.
President and CEO Ed Schmidtke says it will facilitate major airfield infrastructure work in the summer of 2022.
The government will match the airport's own expenditures on a number of projects estimated to have a total cost of up to $26 million.
Schmidtke said, "We're going to resurface our primary runway, replace the runway edge lighting, replace approach lighting that hasn't seen any major upgrades for over 20 years. And we're going to put additional runway safety ends on all four runway approaches."
He described the work as "a very big enhancement to our services," adding "this is a very big funding announcement that helps us with financial stability over the long term after we get out of the pandemic."
Airport passenger traffic is currently running at 18 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Schmidtke said attendees to the airport's annual meeting next month will hear that "despite our best efforts, we still lost a significant amount of money in 2020, and everything points to losing money again in 2021."
Thunder Bay Airport has been unable to offset revenue losses from the pandemic with cost-cutting measures.
"We had a lot of vacant positions that we did not fill. We spent the winter without our crosswind runway. We just let the snow fly to reduce the amount of work we had to do and the amount of expenses we had to incur. If you walk through the building there currently aren't escalators... so we have looked everywhere we can to make ends meet as best we can until traffic starts to return," Schmidtke said.
The federal funding will also enable the airport to move up some work it had planned to do within three or four years.
Schmidtke said the airport received a sympathetic ear from Transport Canada with the assistance of local MPs Patty Hajdu and Marcus Powlowski, and "it obviously made sense for everybody" to accelerate the work to 2022.
"If you have safety related work you're supposed to do, but you're not making any money, how are you going to fund that and make sure you do it before there are any kind of reductions to service from crumbling infrastructure?"
Looking beyond the pandemic, Schmidtke said it remains to be seen how much traffic the airport eventually recovers.
"When the community, in general, thinks it is safe to do so, I think we are going to see a lot of latent-demand service. We're going to see people fly, then we're going to see what the new normal is."
He said one key factor impacting passenger volume is whether the pandemic has a permanent effect on business traffic.
"How much comes back? How much is replaced by Zoom meetings, how much can't be replaced because certain types of business activity just requires face-to-face contact?" he asked.