Larger planes and new direction coming to Sarnia’s airport

A Dash 8 aircraft at Sarnia Chris Hadfield Airport. Photo courtesy, Clare Webb

Cathy Dobson 

Use it or lose it, business leaders and other officials say about residents flying to and from Sarnia’s airport.

About 15,000 people use the Chris Hadfield Airport annually, about half of what it was when the city took ownership of the facility from Transport Canada in 1997.

“But we are coming back,” says Clare Webb of Scottsdale Aviation, the company contracted by the city to manage the airport.

Clare Webb

There was a time in the early 2000s when there were only 10,000 passengers, he said.

“People are starting to travel more, the economy has improved, and the Canadian dollar encourages American customers,” Webb said, adding Air Canada has also lowered its fares.

He has high hopes that Air Canada’s recently announced flight changes will also have a positive impact.

The carrier recently announced it was reducing the number of daily flights between Sarnia and Toronto from five to two starting Nov. 1.

While that doesn’t sound like an improvement, Air Canada is also replacing the 18-seat Beechcraft 1900D planes now in use with 37-seat Bombardier Dash 8s.

The Dash 8 is considered far more dependable and less likely to break down, a problem that has plagued the Sarnia service with delays and cancellations in recent years.

Cancellations have been as high as 30% some months.

“We’re hoping that, with this change to bigger planes and fewer slots, more planes will come in and take off on time,” says Daniel Byskal, Sarnia’s assistant solicitor.

Daniel Byskal

He’s in charge of formulating a strategic plan for the airport’s next 20 years and said he’s “cautiously optimistic” the changes will help.

Byskal is facilitating a series of public meetings and urging local residents to fill out a five-minute survey at www.smartsarnia.com to gather input for the strategic plan. This week, he’s talking to reps from large local industry.

While nearly 30 people were at a separate meeting for private plane owners, about 10 attended a Sept. 25 meeting to talk about commercial air traffic.

Their overwhelming concern was reliability. Several told stories about driving to London or Toronto at the last minute because of flight delays and cancellations.

However, most said they like having an airport so close to home and will use it if reliability improves.

“Sarnia is very fortunate to have an airport and a commercial carrier for a city this size,” said Shirley de Silva, president of the Sarnia-Lambton Chamber of Commerce.

Shirley de Silva

She said she’d like to see it marketed better and more investment in the terminal building.

Transport Canada left the city a capital fund for improvements when the city took ownership. That money is now gone, said Byskal, and Sarnia needs an asset management plan for its airport. Local taxpayers will now pay for any maintenance.

The terminal is tired, dated and doesn’t tell travellers anything about the local community, de Silva said.

A new strategic plan will include a capital plan and marketing, said Byskal.  “We have a lot of great potential there but we have to get the word out.”

As of Nov. 1, Dash 8 flights will depart Sarnia at 9:20 a.m. and 6:35 p.m.