The Edmonton International Airport (YEG) expects its passenger numbers to reach nearly 90% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023, a recovery pace much faster than it originally projected.
YEG served 8.15 million passengers in 2019 before losing millions of trips to the global pandemic. It expects to hit 7.2 million passengers by the end of this year.
The speedier-than-expected recovery rate is a testament to support from YEG's ecosystem, said Myron Keehn, who became CEO in 2022. "It really has a lot to do with our community and our passengers and our airlines," he told Taproot.
Keehn cited the Regional Air Services Opportunity Fund, to which 14 municipalities contributed $15 million in 2021, facilitated by Edmonton Global.
Keehn wouldn't get into the specifics of how the money was spent, but the fund's stated objective was to "help attract strategic passenger and cargo flights," which it did.
"We had more non-stop destinations at the end of 2022 than we had in 2019. In 2019, we had 52 non-stop destinations and in 2022, we had 55," he said. "It allowed us to attract airlines to come back more quickly, or to launch new routes."
Some of those new non-stop destinations include Frankfurt, Nashville, Tucson, Quebec City, Moncton, and Charlottetown.
Edmonton is somewhat behind Calgary in its recovery, in part because YYC was permitted to operate international flights at the height of pandemic restrictions, while Edmonton was not. At YEG, domestic passenger rates are recovering faster than international ones.
"We have to rebuild our knowledge externally to Canada that people can fly internationally (to and from YEG)," said Keehn.
Another factor in YEG's passenger-recovery rate is its effort to improve the passenger experience. As measured by the Airport Service Quality program from Airports Council International, "We had some of our highest scores ever in the last two quarters," Keehn said.
He was quick to point out that it's not just YEG's organizational staff who contributed to the recovery rate or positive feedback regarding the passenger experience.
"There are literally 10 to 20 different organizations that make your flight work," he said. "It's like a big orchestra, and the airport is a co-conductor of that orchestra, working with the airline partners and with our government agencies. We have to all be playing off the same song sheet to make it work well, and so I think we're blessed in that regard in our Edmonton ecosystem."
It has also helped to attract discount airlines like Porter Airlines, which added Edmonton to its network in February, and Lynx Air, which started flying out of YEG last July.
Passenger traffic dropped to 2.6 million in 2020 and barely crawled up to 2.79 million in 2021. As restrictions eased and travel became more common, YEG saw 5.85 million passengers in 2022.
Looking ahead, getting to 100% passenger recovery (or greater) will require both an increased appetite for travel from Edmontonians and business development with partners such as Edmonton Global, Explore Edmonton, and the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce to attract others to visit.
"The more we can do as a community to attract events and create events like the hydrogen conference that just happened, and all the different things are happening here, the more we can drive inbound tourism," he said.
Finally, Keehn and his team want to hear from Edmonton-area residents.
"Airlines respond to demand, but they also respond to customers," he said. "We're always open for the community to reach out to us about flights they want to have and also support our initiatives to try and attain new flights."
Aside from passenger travel, YEG has also succeeded in growing its cargo volume. "Globally, cargo has declined," said Keehn. "But our cargo volume was up 7.2% in 2022 overtop of 2021, and global cargo volumes declined around 6%."