By François Shalom, Montreal Gazette, November 19, 2014
What Air Canada says with disgust about Plattsburgh International Airport, Garry Douglas says with great pride.
In a PowerPoint presentation detailing a US$55-million expansion of the airport, almost entirely based on an anticipated doubling of Canadian travellers, the president and CEO of the airport and of the Plattsburgh North Country Chamber of Commerce flashed a quote by Air Canada president Calin Rovinescu complaining that “Plattsburgh is Quebec’s fastest-growing airport.”
That comment reflects a long-standing complaint by the airline industry that Canadian governments charge carriers and airports too much, prompting an estimated 4.5 million Canadians to fly out of cross border U.S. airports annually.
Thank you, but I did not pay for that quote,” Douglas quipped.
About 85 per cent of Plattsburgh’s 150,000 passengers last year were Canadians — overwhelmingly Montrealers.
“We think it will be about 300,000” in less than 10 years, Douglas told The Montreal Gazette later, of which more than 85 per cent will be Quebecers.
The facility calls itself Montreal’s U.S. airport — and Douglas extended that Wednesday to call Plattsburgh Montreal’s U.S. suburb.
All major urban centres in North America other than Montreal have at least one secondary airport, he said, and Plattsburgh fits that bill.
“Montreal’s U.S. airport is more than a saying — it’s a psychological link we have with Montreal.”
Burlington’s significantly larger international airport does not have that same connection, he said, and is much farther than Plattsburgh. The waning Canadian dollar is not much of an issue, he added.
“Our experience here in Plattsburgh is that (the exchange rate) starts to be a detriment in the mind of the Canadian consumer when you start getting to 20, 25 or as high as 30 per cent differential, as it was some years ago.”
The loonie was last at par with the U.S. dollar in 2013 but is now trading at about 88 cents to the greenback.
“But I always have to remind people that even when it was at 30 per cent,” said Douglas, “you’d have people saying ‘Oh no, there won’t be any Canadians anymore.’ And you know what? Business was off about 40 per cent. Which means that 60 per cent, even at that extreme of a seeming disadvantage, were still here.”
The airport, a former U.S. air force base, has doubled its parking lot to about 3,300 spaces in the last year — and virtually all licence plates are from Quebec.
Phase Two, currently underway, will greatly expand the 30,000-square-foot terminal which airport manager Chris Kreig called “a little cozy for 147,000 passengers.”
It will also add seven ticket counters and a formal security area — which now spills out of the lobby.
Kreig said that many Canadians asked in a survey at the airport expressed “a strong interest in flights to Paris.” But that’s not in the near future, he added.
Justin Ralenkotter, spokesperson for ultra-low-cost carrier Allegiant Air, one of the two main airport tenants, said that “over 70 per cent of our customers here are from Canada — and that’s a large part of our success here.”
Asked if his airline would consider flying out of Dorval’s Trudeau International Airport, he said “yes, if we see an opportunity that would make sense cost-wise. But not now.”
Paul Berry, spokesperson for Spirit Airlines, which flies canary-yellow planes with large bold black lettering, conceded that his super-low-cost carrier has “about twice as many complaints as other airlines.”
“They call us the nickel-and-dime airline, the cattle-call airline — but that’s because they are not aware of our concept (of charging for nearly everything).”
“It’s à la carte pricing.”
Kreig noted that the airport’s website — and the airport’s name on-site — is bilingual and provides real-time information on the Champlain border crossing waiting times — and links to webcams for the Mercier and Champlain bridges and Highway 15.