Our community-controlled airport is thriving: mooted privatization by feds would ship the benefits elsewhere

Thomas Payne Jr.
Thomas Payne Jr.

You know that moment, when you’re on the plane at the end of the runway, and the engines start spooling up? The excitement builds and you know you’ll soon be airborne. Our airport is experiencing the moment right now.

Jan. 1 marks 20 years since the federal government transferred responsibility for our community airport facilities to the Winnipeg Airport Authority.

A lot has changed during the last 20 years – there is a new terminal, almost a million more passengers per year pass through the doors, there are some incredible stories of partnering to grow employment in Winnipeg and there’s even a new name for the airport. Yet in so many ways, we’re just at the start of the runway.

Today, we’re thriving. We have more destinations and direct flights from Winnipeg than ever before. We’re one of the busiest cargo hubs in Canada, driving our economy by connecting people and local businesses with the world.

The WAA is a community-controlled, non-share capital corporation – which means there are no shareholders taking money out of our airport and our community. After paying the federal government rent each year, all revenue generated from the airport is reinvested into facility and services. Our board of directors is comprised entirely of Manitoba community leaders.

Canada’s community-based airport model is a resounding success. Yet increasingly, there are conversations about the federal government “privatizing” airports, to offset rising deficits by cashing in on the net value of Canada’s airports.

The real question is: who will profit? Under the current model it goes to the community, as every dollar of profit is reinvested back into the airport. The federal government is considering selling off the airport to the highest bidder for a short-term gain. Under that model, the profit will go to shareholders, most likely with no connection to our community – or even our country.

Those in favour of the for-profit model argue they can sell more lattes and doughnuts. But that doesn’t make sense. The WAA’s focus on generating revenue is no different than a for-profit share capital company. Whether it’s adding food and beverage offerings in the terminal building, bringing new carriers to our city or leasing land to companies looking to locate in Manitoba, we strive to lead in transportation innovation and growth. The suggestion there’s money being left on the table shows a complete lack of understanding about how we operate.

What is different between the two models is the motivation. The WAA uses these revenues in order to enhance the customer experience or lower the fees charged. For-profit, share capital management seeks to improve margins and pay dividends to their backers. So, if new owners can’t satisfy shareholders by selling more doughnuts, what can they do?

The options a for-profit owner has to increase their margins are simple. One is to increase the various fees and charges. The other option is to reduce costs by cutting services or deferring infrastructure investments.

There’s no doubt a for-profit corporation could save some money in the short term by cutting services or maintenance at the airport. But we strongly believe your airport is the front door to our community. We welcome people to our city and province every day, many for the first time. Whether here for a convention, a vacation or, as we witnessed with the first Syrian refugees being welcomed on the “hug rug”, arrival to one’s new home, your airport is the introduction to our province.

Rather than talk about selling off community assets, we need to focus on making the travel experience better and allowing more people to share in that experience. Canada is among the most expensive countries in the world to fly in, in large part because of the regulatory environment. For example, Canada’s major airports have paid $5 billion in rent to the federal government – the WAA alone has shipped more than $88 million to Ottawa since 1997 (considerably more than the airport’s value at time of transfer).

Other ideas are being floated as well. Many make a lot of sense. Permitting you to purchase duty-free goods on arrival and setting standards for passenger-screening wait times for CATSA services (the government’s screening agency) will surely improve the customer experience. The commitment to better protection through a passenger bill of rights will also increase confidence in the services to be delivered each time you travel.

As a country, we need to focus on enhancing the passenger experience and making air travel more affordable, rather than driving up costs by selling off community airports for the federal government’s one-time gain.

This is an exciting time for the WAA and your airport. We will continue to make decisions that are in the best interest of our community, and continue to invest in your airport. We have accomplished so much in the past 20 years. I am confident we are merely at the start of the runway.

Together, we are set for takeoff.

Thomas Payne Jr. is chairman of the board of directors of the Winnipeg Airports Authority and president of Payne Transportation Ltd.

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