Canada’s boomtown is about to get an airport to match.
Fort McMurray, Alta., is home to Canada’s fastest-growing airport, but its small, three-decade-old terminal is bursting at the seams amid the oil industry’s years of rapid expansion. Now it’s about to get some much-needed breathing room.
On June 9, a brand new $258-million terminal, five times larger than the current building, will open to serve as the gateway to the oil sands.
Oil sands workers heading back home will no longer be crowded into standing-room-only waiting lounges. Instead, they’ll get valet parking, new sit-down restaurants, and convenient access to popular destinations such as Mexico, Hawaii and Las Vegas. Non-stop flights to Sin City will begin late next month. (“What happens in Fort McMurray stays in Vegas,” reads one of the airport’s new slogans.)
“People that are off somewhere right now and arrive here on the 9th of June are going to wonder what city they’re in,” said Scott Clements, president and chief executive officer of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority.
The northern Alberta energy industry long ago outgrew its current terminal. The building, designed to accommodate 250,000 passengers a year, now counts 1.3 million travellers.
While the rest of Canada’s busiest airports have seen an average annual passenger traffic growth rate of about 3 per cent, Fort McMurray’s airport growth hit an eye-popping 25 per cent in each of the past two years.
The old terminal built in 1985 will still be used for charter flights. The 15,000 square metres of new space will feature plenty of bells and whistles for airline travellers, including 16 new food and beverage operators, a garden in the arrivals area, and a 60-metre video wall in the arrivals hall.
Every seat in the building has a cup holder, USB port and power outlet, and exposed timber ceilings and walls using reclaimed mountain pine beetle wood from British Columbia are incorporated into the terminal design. A focal point will be a painting by local artist Lucas Seaward – who uses oil sands bitumen for paint – of a float plane taking off over a Clearwater River tributary, a tribute to the history of the aviation industry in the area.
Like many buildings in labour-strapped Fort McMurray, located 435 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, the whole airport is prefabricated and was built from modules trucked in.
As oil sands production goes, so goes Fort McMurray and its airport. The population of the regional municipality that includes Fort McMurray is now 105,000, more than double what it was in 2000 – plus tens of thousands more who “couch-surf” or live in work camps, referred to as the “shadow population.”
The growth is likely to continue. Oil sands production is expected to roughly double in the next 10 years, hitting 4.5 million barrels of oil a day by 2025 compared with 1.8 million barrels a day in 2012, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
Many airport travellers are coming in for work or are returning home after a shift rotation. While more than 60 per cent of the airport’s traffic goes to and from destinations in Alberta or British Columbia, many workers also come from Ontario, the Atlantic provinces and further afield.
“It’s the workers that we need to haul this oil out of the ground. There aren’t enough that live in Fort McMurray, and it’s very expensive to live here,” Mr. Clements said. “They come from all over Canada, and some from outside of Canada.”
The gala opening ceremony party is Saturday, and will feature Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield as master of ceremonies, and a performance by Canadian rockers Randy Bachman and Fred Turner.
But the airport itself cannot escape the Fort McMurray labour crunch. The deadline to hire 400 new food and service workers to staff the new terminal’s eateries and retail operations is ticking down. Mr. Clements said the federal government’s decision in April to place a moratorium on new temporary foreign workers in the food service sector has hit Fort McMurray hard – and is hurting the chances of all airport restaurants, including the Famoso pizza franchise, from opening on time.
“Some may not be able to open at all, and others will have limited hours,” Mr. Clements said.
The rate of passenger traffic growth so far this year hasn’t been as furious as it was in 2012 and 2013. But it’s still expected to be a robust 12 per cent, and he said another expansion isn’t far away.
“I’m predicting that we’ll probably be [breaking] ground within five years.”