Saturday, 28 December 2013

(Poem) Between Two Parks

Allison and I driving south on the Icefields Parkway (photo by Allison Nichols)

The road south
from Jasper to Banff
is an engineering feat of genius
Eat your heart out, Mount Kailash!
Our pilgrims aren’t encumbered
by tinpot carryalls and clockwise prostration

The icefields shoot past
glistening, oblivious
to the fumes eating through their pores

The Alberta Strata mark the route
Jasper to Edmonton
Rocky Mountain House to Red Deer
Banff to Calgary
Like feeding tubes for the cities
A jagged wall of rejuvenation and postcard patriotism

Mother Bear peers out from her winter cave
scratches at the earth
Eagle is alerted

(Pincher Creek, AB, December 23, 2013)

Why Alberta Merits Two International Air Hubs

I've been meaning to write a response to Ed McDonald's opinion piece in the Edmonton Journal back on December 2 in which the self-described "professional airline pilot, professional engineer and aviation consultant" criticizes Edmonton International Airport's lofty ambitions to become a full-fledged global aviation hub to compete with Calgary International. In his article, McDonald alleges that Edmonton "never has been nor ever will be an airline hub, despite the promises and dreams two decades ago."

As a communications advisor for EIA, my job, among other things, is to iterate the opposing argument in keeping with the brand promise "more flights to more places." At least between 9 and 5, Monday to Friday, I have to do it because I'm paid to. But as an Edmontonian, and one fairly well acquainted with the issues facing the city's air transportation infrastructure, I also feel compelled to make the case in my free time. This, I should make clear, is not a piece of 'EIA' communication. These are purely my own views, albeit ones that are shared by a great many of the people I work with.

In his editorial, McDonald outlines two basic but different arguments. As one of Edmonton's die-hard City Centre Airport supporters (an issue that was finally laid to rest last month), he contends that Edmonton shot itself in the foot by closing its venerable municipal airport, and in doing so squandered an opportunity to establish itself as an important urban "spoke" airport akin to London or Toronto's City Centre Airports. He also makes the claim that Alberta, with its population of four million (as of this year), simply isn't big enough to support two major international airports, arguing that a single one requires a population base of at least three million.

Let's think about this for a moment. For starters, McDonald's argument appears to be self-contradictory in its allegation that Edmonton ought to have kept two airports open - in spite of the fact that the province as a whole doesn't have the population base to support two major airports. How does this make sense? Indeed, anybody well acquainted with Edmonton's modern history (and not emotionally over-attached to ECCA) will tell you that it was the city's failure to swiftly close and redevelop the Muni that both divided and undermined its status as an air hub, allowing Calgary to supersede what was once the undisputed air capital of the province, and hindered the city's downtown for decades by restricting building height, a factor in the mass exodus of corporate headquarters from the provincial capital to the province's now undisputed corporate capital to the south.

A Wagnerian opera finally over (source: Edmonton Journal)
Had the city of Edmonton closed City Centre Airport back in the 1960s following the construction of what was then (and still is) the second-largest airport in the country by land area, Edmonton might still be the province's primary air gateway. Certainly Edmonton's geographical position along the major transpolar air routes to both Europe and Asia and northerly position vis–à–vis Calgary (not to mention its proximity to major fuel refineries in Sherwood Park) still offer tangible benefits to air carriers, and had more corporate head offices remained in Edmonton, it's entirely likely that Calgary International Airport would have remained secondary to Edmonton had the city consolidated its air service early on and concentrated on building better transit links to the International.

But what's done is done, and with Edmonton's breakneck passenger growth over the past five years, it's clear that the airport's time has come once again. Which brings me to McDonald's second point, which is that Alberta, currently the fastest-growing province in the country, doesn't have the population base to support two international airports. Apart from the fact that his allegation is contradicted by the fact that Edmonton and Calgary are both enjoying both the fastest passenger growth in the country among major airports and the steadiest route expansion, this argument is also simply not supported by comparable international experience.

Three Overseas Parallels: Norway, Scotland and New Zealand

Were it an independent country, Alberta, with its four-million-strong population and thriving oil and gas economy, would be broadly comparable to Norway or Scotland. (Granted, the latter isn't technically an independent country, although it could potentially become one in 2014.) Norway, with its population of five million, its per-capita income of $55,000 and its booming energy industry, is arguably the overseas country that most closely resembles Alberta. It also, in stark contradiction to McDonald's assertion, maintains four international airports, each with passenger totals over four million, of which two (Oslo and Bergen) offer regular scheduled intercontinental air routes.

In the case of Norway, Oslo (Gandermoen) International Airport is by far the country's largest at 22 million annual passengers (and the second-largest in Scandinavia after Copenhagen), and offers routes to destinations all across Europe, as well as to intercontinental destinations like Bangkok, Cancun, Dubai, Goa, Islamabad, Lahore, New York (JFK and Newark), Oakland, Phuket, Seoul, Sharm el-Sheikh and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, secondary hub Bergen (Flesland) International Airport, while significantly smaller than Oslo, carries nearly six million passengers a year to destinations that include New York, Tel Aviv and Tokyo as well as seasonal charters to Hiroshima and Gran Canaria. Meanwhile, third and fourth-rung airports in Stavanger and Trondheim offer extensive European connections.

The case of Scotland is equally instructive, and perhaps a better parallel to Alberta given the similar nature of the relationship between its two primary cities. At a population of 5.3 million, Scotland is also roughly comparable to Alberta population-wise, and its petroleum-oriented economy and northern latitude also makes it a logical comparison. It is also a country centred on two main urban regions, Edinburgh - the country's political and cultural capital, and Glasgow - its traditional economic hub. Scotland also has an important third city, Aberdeen, which, as the country's main North Sea oil industry hub, serves a role roughly analogous to Fort McMurray in Alberta.

Plenty to dance about at Glasgow International Airport

Like Edmonton and Calgary, Edinburgh and Glasgow both have a metro areas of roughly a million people. And both cities also maintain thriving international airports, in spite of being far closer together geographically than Alberta's twin cities. With annual passenger totals of over nine million, Edinburgh International is Scotland's busiest airport and the sixth busiest in the UK - and the second busiest outside the greater London area. Edinburgh is also not hard up for intercontinental routes, enjoying non-stop connections to Cancun, Chicago, Doha, Marrakesh, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia and Toronto. Glasgow's airport is smaller, but only just (and growing faster than Edinburgh), serving over seven million a year - roughly the same number as Edmonton - to destinations that include Calgary, Dubai, Halifax, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto and Vancouver.

Another interesting overseas parallel to Alberta is New Zealand. At 4.5 million, New Zealand is only slightly more populous than Alberta, and is roughly the same size geographically. It is also a  prosperous resource-driven jurisdiction that shares Alberta's propensity for commodity-driven boom and bust cycles. In terms of air traffic, New Zealand has a primary international air hub in Auckland as well as a secondary international hub in Christchurch. As the main urban centre for New Zealand's South Island, Christchurch has maintained its role as an important aviation centre over various economic ups and downs (as well as two devastating earthquakes in 2011), and today enjoys non-stop connections to Bangkok, Dubai, Singapore, Tashkent and Tokyo, and with China Southern Airlines soon to commence non-stops to Guangzhou. So much for needing a minimum of three million people for a single international air hub.

What Edmonton Could Be: The Australian Example

So if size and location haven't held Edmonton back from becoming a bona-fide international hub, what has? The twin culprits, as many Edmontonians both inside and outside the industry know, are a hidebound national carrier determined to limit all of its international traffic in and out of Alberta to a single hub and a protectionist national aviation policy that has worked to limit international carriers' landing rights at Canadian airports. (These problems are further compounded by prohibitive landing fees and tariffs which conspire to make Canadian airports uncompetitive internationally - and drive as many as five million Canadians to stateside airports like Bellingham and Buffalo in pursuit of cheaper fares.)

What would Edmonton's airport look like were Canada to loosen its protectionist airline policies and ease the financial burden on its airports? While Bergen and Glasgow are still worthwhile points of comparison, the best parallel is to be found in the Asia-Pacific country most readily comparable to Canada.

YEG Down Under? (source:
Adelaide, the capital of the state of South Australia, is very much the Edmonton of Australia. It's the country's fifth-largest city and has a similar population at 1.2 million. Like Edmonton it is also home to the country's fifth busiest airport, and one that, like EIA, serves a strategically important function as the closest air gateway to the country's mining sector, largely concentrated in country's vast geographic centre, straddling South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. It is also similar to Edmonton inasmuch as the country's national carrier, Qantas, has always made it a policy to use Adelaide International as a "spoke" rather than a hub, opting to funnel international traffic through its main hubs in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

However, the Australian government's embrace of open skies legislation broke Qantas' monopoly on international flights to and from Down Under, and with that opened up opportunities for the city of Adelaide. Result? By June 2013 Adelaide was enjoying year-on-year international traffic growth of a staggering 14.8 per cent and now has non-stop flight to Dubai with Emirates, Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia X and Singapore with Singapore Airlines, as well as Bali (Denpasar) and Auckland with Aussie low-cost carrier Jetstar, which this year established a new pilot and cabin crew base at Adelaide - a clear sign of things to come at this growing air hub.

At the risk of milking the Edmonton-Adelaide parallel to death, the two cities share a remarkable amount in common. Adelaide, in spite of long being Australia's 'forgotten' city, is an industrial city known known increasingly  for its thriving arts sector and festival scene (the Adelaide Fringe Festival is the largest arts festival in the southern hemisphere). In terms of liveability Adelaide as been repeatedly listed in the Top 10 of The Economist's World's Most Liveable Cities index, and has also been repeatedly ranked as the most liveable city in Australia by the Property Council of Australia. In other words, it's the city people tend to forget about unless they actually live there, in which case they can't imagine living anywhere else. Sound familiar?


Cities like Adelaide, Bergen, Christchurch, Glasgow and Edmonton all clearly have the demand, and the need, for good international air service. It's also colossally myopic - and frankly untrue - to assume that such air service necessarily comes at the expense of other centres, or in Edmonton's case Calgary. The numbers clearly indicate otherwise. Of Canada's major airports, Edmonton was the fastest growing in 2012 at 6.4 per cent. The second fastest growing? Calgary at 6.0 per cent. Similar trends can be seen elsewhere. In Norway, Oslo-Gandermoen grew by 4.8 per cent in 2011-2012 while Bergen-Flesland grew by 3.8 per cent over the same period. Meanwhile in Australia, overall traffic at Adelaide actually dropped in 2011-2012 (due to the collapse of domestic carrier Tiger Airways) but international traffic surged across the Big Five airports, even as the country's largest carrier continues to suffer labour difficulties and sliding profits.

Rovinescu: he's not your boyfriend (source: Toronto Star)
Last month in Vancouver, Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu rebutted Vancouver International Airport's calls for open skies legislation, arguing that unrestricted competition in the airline industry would harm Canadian business interests and reduce airports like YVR into 'feeder' airports for global carriers. In it he specifically mentioned the Australian case, in which he alleged that the country's open skies policies had effectively allowed Emirates to run roughshod over its airline industry. "Now, there is a choice for Australian customers (travelling abroad), as long as their choice is Dubai," he said. Personally I have my doubts that many Australians outside the Qantas board room share his sentiments, particularly in cities like Adelaide where, until recently, the only choices for international travel were Sydney, Melbourne or Perth.

This is the situation Edmontonians continue to face. Although a major victory was achieved this fall with Icelandair's new Edmonton-Reykjavik non-stop, our flag carrier's refusal to offer any international non-stops out of Edmonton (apart from the now-downgraded London-Heathrow service) and the federal government's still restrictive policies regarding international carriers, comes at a colossal disadvantage for non-traditional hub cities like Edmonton. Not only would we love to have more intercontinental non-stops out of Edmonton, but we've shown we can support it. Statistics from the UK's Civil Aviation Authority clearly show that Air Canada's Edmonton-London flights have remained competitive compared with comparable flights out of Calgary and other centres, in spite of claims to the contrary, and early sales for the Icelandair's services out of Edmonton were enough to persuade the airline to launch the route earlier than previously planned.

None of this need come at the expense of Calgary's steady aviation growth, and there is clearly a need for two major airports in this province. While YYC and YEG will invariably continue to joust for passengers and routes, at the end of the day the two airport authorities are on the same team, as both are important drivers of Alberta's economy. Ed McDonald's view of the Alberta aviation scene might have held water back in the 1970s when the province's population first cracked the two-million mark, but it's clearly woefully out of date now, contradicted by both local demand and international parallels.

More flights to more places: it's not just a corporate mantra. It's a raison d'être. And while we at EIA will invariably continue taking pot shots at our rivals down the QEII, at the end of the day what's good for Edmonton is also good for Calgary. Open skies legislation may not be good Air Canada share prices, but more choices for Canadian air travellers and overseas business people and tourists wanting to come to Canada is a good thing all around. And at the end of the day, isn't that the whole point of aviation?

Thursday, 26 December 2013

5 Reasons Northern Alberta Needs A Tourism Makeover

For the record, I love the new Travel Alberta marketing campaign "Remember To Breathe." It's a great catchphrase for a province with an enviable treasure-trove of awe-inspiring scenery and interesting things to do. Here's my problem with this ad, though. The imagery in it is overwhelmingly biased towards the southern part of the province. (For the record, I'm referring to the Edmonton-Jasper corridor as 'central' in this post.) Not to disparage the beauty of the province's southern prairies and Badlands or the majesty of Waterton and Banff or even Calgary's ever-more-impressive skyline, but is there really nothing north of Edmonton worth visiting?

Endless forest, dancing lights in Wood Buffalo National Park
(source: National Post)
Alberta, it's worth mentioning, is enormous. At 661,848 square kilometers in size it's larger than France or Ukraine and it would be the 41st largest country by land mass (between Burma and Afghanistan) were it to be independent. And like the aforementioned countries, Alberta's land mass is one of epic diversity, but as a result of a number of factors (relative population density, proximity to the United States and major rail lines, the economic ascendency of Calgary etc.) tourism in the province has been all but limited to its southern half. It's as though the southern half were France and the northern half were Afghanistan or Burma!

But unlike the latter two countries, northern Alberta's tourism woes cannot be blamed on wars, banditry, local insurgencies or xenophobic dictatorships intent on shutting out the world. Nor can it be blamed on a lack of attractions. Take, for example, Wood Buffalo National Park: Canada's largest national park and the second largest in the world (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983), home to the world's largest herd of free-roaming wood bison and one of only two nesting sites for the whooping crane. Or Peace River Country: a vast stretch of aspen parkland spanning northwestern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia and crucible of the Fur Trade. There's the historic hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta's oldest continually inhabited settlement and governing hub for the region's largest First Nations, the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan.

Grass dancers at Lac La Biche Powwow (source: Facebook)
There are great festivals too, like Slave Lake's North Country Fair - a hippie love-in/folk music festival on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake and Fort McMurray's YMM ArtFest, as well as the region's numerous Aboriginal-themed festivities (most notably Fort Mac's Métis Fest and National Aboriginal Day festivities). There are fishing, hunting and nature tours all across the region's endless lake-studded boreal forest landscape, including trips to remote fishing camps where your chances of encountering another human being are next to zero. And, of course, there are aerial tours of the region's most economically important - and controversial - feature, the Athabasca Oil Sands, tours which do much to quell the notion that the entire region (as opposed to a fraction of one percent of it) resembles a bomb-blighted wasteland.

Yet in spite of this, tourism in northern Alberta, as well as promotional muscle behind it, remains negligible at best. Apart from simply historical habit (the south has always been far more synonymous with tourism), this may be simply due to the fact that the region, with all its resource wealth, has never felt the need to develop a tourism sector. After all, with Fort McMurray Airport passenger traffic growing at an annual rate of 29 per cent (by far the fastest in the country), it's not as though people aren't coming to the region - they're just not doing it for pleasure. Which is a real shame, because in addition to the region's truly stunning physical landscape and abundance of things to do, northern Alberta would also benefit from a greater focus on attracting tourists for the following reasons:

1) Tourism is a truly recession-proof industry.

Still the only game in town (source: National Post)
Alberta economists talk about "boom and bust" economics with the same fatalistic tone that Japanese architects talk about earthquakes. And while this is unlikely to change anytime soon, a more diverse economy makes for less severe busts. And tourism, perhaps more than any other sector, is a great recession insurance policy. Not only does an abundance of local attractions provide more affordable alternatives to overseas travel in times of greater economic hardship (in turn pouring capital back into local communities), recessions make a country more affordable to overseas visitors. A vibrant tourism sector is therefore a great insurance policy for a region, particularly for one so prone to big economic ups and downs.

2) Tourism keeps people around.

While Fort McMurray continues its steady evolution from seasonal work camp to a real city, it still maintains a disproportionately high "shadow population" of seasonal workers. A more substantial tourism industry would be a further step in the city's evolution. As the Municipal District of Wood Buffalo's only real urban settlement, Fort Mac is the logical hub for a full-fledged Wood Buffalo tourism industry, and it's not hard to imagine the place as a new Jasper or Banff, replete with superb eateries, lodgings, coffee shops, retail outlets, live music venues and art galleries, which would not only create jobs but also curb the outflow of people following their two weeks on the oilpatch.

3) It would be a great boon for the region's Aboriginal people.

Northern Alberta is not only home to tremendous cultural diversity among its First Nation and Métis communities, but it also some of the country's most economically successful Aboriginal groups. While the oil sands continue to cause much consternation and division among the region's First Nations, there's no denying their positive impact on many communities. The Fort McKay and Fort McMurray bands are amongst the wealthiest First Nations in the country, and the Fort Chipewyan region's Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations have both built successful groups of companies that encompass everything from trucking to ecotourism. Some of the region's Aboriginal tourism drivers, such as the wonderful Mikisew Sport Fishing and the fantastic Aboriginal hotelier group Sawridge, are very much market-ready, while others need more time and support to reach that point. Considering the widespread interest in Aboriginal culture and traditions among European and Asian tourists, this would seem to be a natural magnet - and a huge potential benefit to the local population.

4) It would help combat the region's enduring PR problem.

If only Fort McMurray looked like this! (source:
When Neil Young compared Fort McMurray to Hiroshima, my initial reaction was that this was a rather unflattering thing to say about one of modern Japan's prettiest and most hospitable metropolitan centres. It also reminded me of one of the other great benefits of tourism: combating unfounded negative stereotypes. When it comes to shedding a bad image, nothing beats tourism. The latest issue of National Geographic Traveler lists former hellholes Rwanda and Sarajevo among its top twenty "must-visit" destinations of 2014 (together with the now recovered and rejuvenated New Orleans, ranked at #1), and tourism looks to help lift long-beleaguered Burma as it emerges from fifty years of despotism and destitution. Tourism also stands to help northern Alberta shed its unfounded reputation as an environmental disaster zone akin to western Kazakhstan's nuclear test zones (see Kazakhstan's noble attempt to reinvent itself as a tourist destination), which in turn would do wonders for Alberta and Canada's reputations abroad.

5) Northern Alberta is Canada writ small.

The current state of Northern Alberta's economy is very much reflective of Canada as a whole - thriving but woefully under-diversified. Once a global leader in the tourism industry (ranked second behind Italy as recently as the 1970s), Canada has become a colossal global underachiever, with tourism revenues having dropped 20 per cent since 2000 and the country now ranked 18th in overseas visitors, behind the likes of Saudi Arabia and Ukraine. There are many reasons for that, including the high cost of internal travel, prohibitively high aviation fees and tariffs, protectionist airline policies, unfriendly visa regimes and a plethora of emerging market competitors, but the main reason is simple: it hasn't been prioritized. Many observers have pointed this out, and yet political will to curb Canada's international tourism demise remains in short supply.

Financial basketcase turned tourism darling. Skál!
(source: National Geographic)
Why should any of us care? See Reason #1. Consider the case of Iceland, which in 2012 was ranked 16th overall in spite of having less than one per cent of Canada's population. Prior to Iceland's 2008 banking meltdown the country already enjoyed an international reputation as a "cool" destination thanks to its otherworldly landscape, surprisingly temperate climate, fascinating ancient history and hip modern art, music and design scene. Then when the country's economy collapsed (taking its overvalued currency with it), the country's government and private sector sprung into action , promoting Iceland as a fashionable alternative gateway to Europe, together with its enterprising national air carrier Icelandair, offering transatlantic passengers the option of flying to Europe from smaller hubs (like Halifax and Boston) via Reykjavik and stopping off in the land of Erik the Red and Björk at no extra cost.

Result? When Icelandair launched non-stop flights out of Edmonton International Airport to much local fanfare, the airline quickly found no shortage of demand on the Alberta side for travel to Iceland as well as to continental destinations like Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona. Filling the planes on the way back with anything other than Canadians returning to their regular lives, on the other hand, has proven to be more challenging. That could change. Northern Alberta, and indeed western Canada as a whole, has at least as much going for it tourism-wise as pint-sized Iceland. Edmonton, with its multitude of arts festivals, resplendent park network and increasingly ambitious architecture, makes a compelling foil for Reykjavik, and the haunting landscape of boreal Alberta, as well of course as the Rockies, the Badlands and the postcard cowboy landscapes of the prairies, ought to be drawing Europeans by the thousands. They're not. Not even close.

Let's try to do something about this in 2014. Starting with Alberta's neglected north.