Winnipeg Airports Authority hopes to restore direct flights to U.S. airline hubs in Denver, Chicago

The Winnipeg Airports Authority has made a priority out of re-establishing flights to Denver and Chicago, two United Airlines hubs that can no longer be reached directly from Richardson International Airport.

In a five-year strategic plan made public on Thursday, the authority committed to restoring “key U.S. routes” such as Denver and Chicago.

Those connections were lost during the pandemic, leaving Winnipeg with only three direct, year-round connections to U.S. cities: Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The latter is a Delta Airlines hub that effectively serves as the only nearby gateway that allows Winnipeg passengers convenient access to other U.S. cities.

Winnipeg Airports Authority CEO Nick Hays said Richardson must have more direct flights.

“We’re working with all of our airline partners and we’re laser-focused on bringing that connectivity to the community,” Hays said Thursday in an interview.

“That’s fundamental to our role. That’s what the community needs and wants and we’re working extremely hard to to do.”

It won’t be easy for Richardson to re-establish connections, thanks to capacity issues across the airline industry, said John Gradek, an aviation studies lecturer at McGill University in Montreal.

“There’s not a lot of spare airplanes around and the world is short of pilots. Because of those two things, carriers are being very careful about where to deploy their resources,” he said.

This is hampering regional and transborder connections for many smaller airports, said Gradek, adding a shortage of airline pilots and mechanics is bound to worsen in coming years without government subsidies that promote training in both professions.

Hays acknowledged a shortage of pilots is a challenge in the way of landing more direct flights, but he pointed to the establishment last year of the Winnipeg-Los Angeles flight as a recent success story.

The Winnipeg Airports Authority subsidizes the route with the help of $4.8 million worth of provincial funding aimed at bringing more direct flights to Winnipeg from international destinations.

The airports authority is also looking over the next five years to use facial recognition and other biotechnology to improve the flow of passengers through Richardson.

Facial recognition is already in use at airports by the Canada Border Services Agency.

“This is really about offering consumer choice and delivering an ever-more-seamless passenger experience through the terminal,” Hays said.

“If you fly through many other airports around the world, you’ll start to see these biometric solutions popping up. And it’s an option that is being explored here in Canada as an opt-in service for passengers that choose to do that.”

Air Canada announced in February it was testing out biometric scanning as an option for passengers flying from Vancouver to Winnipeg.

Gradek said the technology is being rolled out to reduce costs, as fewer paid personnel are required to check passengers’ credentials.

Richardson International ended up last year in a stronger financial position than it found itself the year before. Passenger volumes improved from 1.2 million people in 2021 to just over three million in 2022, mainly because the pandemic eased up.

Those three million passengers, however, were still 1.5 million shy of the passenger volumes Richardson enjoyed before the pandemic started.

As a result, the Winnipeg Airports Authority posted a modest $5-million loss in 2022. That was a major improvement over 2021, when the WAA lost $34 million.

Hays said he expects an even better financial performance this year, with one asterisk: The WAA must make a $112-million principal payment against $663 million worth of long-term debt commitments this year, on top of $28 million worth of interest payments.

Those debt commitments will be far more manageable in 2024, when the WAA is scheduled to make a $13-million principal payment and pay $26 million in interest.

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