THUNDER BAY – Travellers coming and going from the Thunder Bay International Airport should find themselves with a little more breathing room later this year.
The airport, which has seen passenger traffic double over the past 24 years, is currently in the process of expanding their second-floor departure lounge and building a new dedicated customs clearance space to expedite international travel.
It was announced on Friday the province, through the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, would be chipping in $5 million toward the estimated $12 million total cost.
The upgrades, the first major construction since the terminal opened in 1994, will provide greater passenger capacity and make it easier for airlines to board their planes.
Airport president and chief executive officer Ed Schmidtke said companies are always concerned about anything that can have a negative effect on their on-time performance.
“Any delays that occur because of these sorts of complications cost airlines money and leaves us with a profile of being perhaps not business ready, not ready for expansion,” Schmidtke said.
“Now we’ve got bandwidth. Now we’ve got capacity. When we’re talking about the validity of this market, we’re not talking about operational constraints.”
Last year the airport, the third busiest in Ontario, set a new passenger volume benchmark with more than 845,000 people taking to the skies. It also set a monthly record in August, surpassing 80,000 travellers for the first time in its history.
Northern Development and Minister Michael Gravelle, who made the announcement alongside Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro, said the airport is an important part of the Thunder Bay economy.
“To watch the growth of this airport has been remarkable,” Gravelle said. “It brings people together and brings commercial impact on the community and Northwestern Ontario.”
The terminal enhancements come two years after the airport undertook multimillion-dollar upgrades to runways.
The provincial funding helps Thunder Bay avoid implementing an airport improvement fee to travellers that is common industry-wide across the country, Schmidtke said.
“We’re a 16-hour drive away (from Toronto),” Schmidtke said. “If this helps us keep $25, $30 off a plane ticket, then that shrinks the distance that makes Thunder Bay a good option economically and makes it easier to access for other social and medical reasons.”
Mauro said while many residents simply see the airport as a gateway to reach destinations, outside of the city it can be seen as a reflection of Thunder Bay’s potential.
“Their capacity is important for people to see Thunder Bay as a place to do business, as a place to see Thunder Bay as potentially hosting events,” Mauro said. “It’s about airport capacity, hotel capacity.”
The revamped departure lounge will increase in space by 55 per cent, including an area on the south side of the second-floor that was not previously publicly accessible.
Gone will be concerns about people not being able to find seats during peak times, Schmidtke said.
“They expect world-class amenities. They’re paying a good dollar to come and they expect world-class amenities,” Schmidtke said.
“This departure lounge, when it’s done, will be on par with any airport of this size in the country.”
Schmidtke said the renovations remain on budget and on schedule, with the lounge expected to be completed mid-summer and the customs clearance area targeted to be ready for the end of October.