Critics question YVR’s $400m terminal expansion plan

Airport aiming to increase annual passenger traffic 25% to 25 million by 2020

Upgrades to be funded in part from an airport improvement fee that was originally supposed to be temporary | Chung Chow

Vancouver Airport Authority (VAA) executives are seeking board approval for a $400 million terminal expansion that would add 10 gates and give Vancouver International Airport (YVR) the capacity to process 25 million passengers annually by 2020.

As they tweak designs for that expansion in the lead-up to what could be final approval late next year, they are also mulling several new options for expansion beyond 2020 that could cost more than $1 billion and add another 20 gates.

Because the financing comes from the airport’s airport improvement fee (AIF), as well as general revenue, consumer advocates question whether the expansion is worth doing.

“We’re not in favour of this,” said Consumers’ Association of Canada president Bruce Cran, who believes that the public consultation that VAA executives have conducted thus far is insufficient.

(BIV diagram created using Base Map/Openstreetmap)

That ongoing consultation is part of a master-planning process.

“There should be meaningful consultation with consumers – the people who use the airport – and see if they want to spend all this money,” Cran said.

He added that he believes high fares at YVR have driven hundreds of thousands of British Columbians annually to Bellingham International Airport.

The AIF for a flight outside B.C. jumped 33% to $20 in 2012 to help pay for $1.8 billion in improvements, including the $400 million in terminal expansions currently being contemplated.

The rest of that money was earmarked for other improvements to terminals, runways, taxiways, airfield infrastructure and a $215 million upgrade to baggage systems that is just now starting to be rolled out.

“It’s a big economic boost,” Tourism Vancouver CEO Ty Speer said of airport expansion. “Tourism is roughly a $4 billion industry now. Do some rough math, and you’ll see that if our airport capacity goes up and more people come here, you’re going to watch that economic impact rise.”

The airport’s 25-million-passenger target for 2020 is a 25% increase compared with what is expected to be a record 20-million-plus passengers passing through the airport in 2015.

The VAA’s vice-president of engineering, Don Ehrenholz, told Business in Vancouver that five gates need to be added to the international terminal’s Pier D, which is used for international flights outside the U.S.

Another five gates need to be added to the domestic terminal’s Pier A, which is largely used by WestJet Airlines Ltd.

What Ehrenholz describes as a “tired old piece” of the domestic terminal – the 1968-era Pier B – would also be upgraded as part of the initial $400 million expansion.

While the VAA board has been aware of the proposed upgrades for several years, management has not yet provided it with direction on how it wants to expand YVR after 2020.

Three proposals dominate.

One would expand YVR to the east and attach a 20-gate terminal to a small nub of the international terminal that currently serves flights to Portland and Seattle.

Another proposal would expand YVR to the west.  But its new western terminal would block several lanes where planes taxi before takeoff and a minor runway that small planes use in bad weather.

The final proposal is to expand at the centre: five new gates each to piers A, B, C and D as well as to expand the small nub that serves the Portland and Seattle flights to make way for future potential expansion.

“We will do more detailed costing next year,” Ehrenholz said.•