Richard Paquette, President & CEO of the Victoria Airport Authority

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Richard Paquette is a man with a full plate. Heaping full. But the Montreal native relishes the full course of challenges set down each day like a meal. The president and chief executive officer of the Victoria Airport Authority has spent almost half his life working at airports and hasn’t even considered retirement. “I’m still having fun,” he smiles.

Surely, his notion of fun must be measured by how many major capital projects he can juggle. Over the past decade, the VAA has spent $80 million on projects like terminal expansion and will spend much more in the next 15 years. By 2025, the passenger terminal will more than double in size. And if we’re still driving cars, parking should jump from 800 to 1,400 spaces, which means a multi-storey parkade. And then there’s a longer runway to invite flights from the UK or Asia, the subject of a $500,000 study. Victoria is the only small or medium-sized airport in Canada without a runway longer than 2,133 metres. It needs more elevated gates for passenger boarding, new security strategies and equipment, larger areas for customs, and maybe a hotel. Oh, and a little interchange project where McTavish Road crosses the Pat Bay Highway.

With 36 staff and a 13-member board nominated by the CRD, municipalities, and senior governments, Victoria’s airport had revenues of $21.65 million and expenses of $14.9 million in 2008. Profits are ploughed back into improvements. (It gets no funding from Ottawa.) Under Paquette, debt has dropped in the last three years by $4 million to $14 million.

Other numbers are climbing. Passenger traffic at Canada’s ninth-busiest airport is expected to top 1.5 million for the second year in a row, and by 2025, VAA forecasts hit 2.3 million people. It was under a million in 1996, the year before the airport was transferred from Transport Canada to the not-for-profit Victoria Airport Authority.

{advertisement} The VAA has committed $3 million to the McTavish Road Interchange. The federal and provincial governments are kicking in $10.5 million each, but critics say it’s money better spent elsewhere. What do you say to them?

This is a huge benefit to all of Victoria. Pat Bay Highway is the main gateway to Victoria and Vancouver Island. It’s also one intersection that has had a fair number of accidents, but most importantly, it is the one that is do-able. There is local municipal support for it. The provincial government owns all the property needed, so it doesn’t require expropriating property, and the federal infrastructure program money is there. I’m proud that it’s happening.

In 2008, you finalized a 20-year master plan with a wish list of airport upgrades and construction projects. What boxes are you ready to tick off on that list?

It’s not just a wish list. We respond to demand. We don’t generate demand. We’re not going to build anything just to satisfy the plan. Nobody does a 20-year plan and has it materialize exactly like that. We’ve built in a number of incremental steps. We’re building a facility that will respond to demand as it materializes. If people stop driving cars to the airport, we won’t build a parkade.
What expansion plans are on the books?

Incrementally, we’re going to see an expansion of the departure lounge and we’ll need more parking positions for aircraft. Perhaps an international wing on the existing terminal building with improved and expanded customs facilities, including pre-clearance to the U.S. We have a report that says it will be a $68-million hit to do that. It’s something that will have to be done but not necessarily in the near future. Somewhere between five and 10 years from now.

How much do upgrades cost local taxpayers?

Nothing at all. Our investment is a bonanza for the local taxpayer. We pay property tax. Our improvements are taxed by the local municipalities.

The VAA has some pretty heady tax bills. Do you think they’re fair?

Industrial rates are much higher than residential rates. We paid $ 830,000 to Sidney and North Saanich in 2008 and we paid about $700,000 rent to the federal government. It will be a very significant issue that the [VAA] board will have to deal with when they face a major expansion of this terminal building.

During the past year, Canadian airports, on average, have experienced a 10 per cent decline in passenger volume, but Victoria airport has dropped only 1.6 per cent. Why?

It’s a number of different things. It’s not like we’ve lost manufacturing jobs like other parts of the country have. We have a stability that many other communities don’t have. We have lots of government workers, universities, and hospitals that are largely unaffected. And Victoria has attracted and continues to attract retired people and people with pretty substantial means.

Are airport improvement fees necessary?

They’re absolutely vital. All the improvements you see across the country wouldn’t have occurred without them. At $10, ours are among the lowest at Canadian airports. In Toronto, it’s $25. In Calgary, it’s $21.

Why spend $41 million to lengthen one runway by a few hundred metres?

On our wish list is a service to England. That’s where the wide-bodied aircraft come in. It’s an excellent economic opportunity for Victoria. We’ve put a proposal together to expand the main runway and we pitched it to the federal government and the province and, at this point, it hasn’t been successful.

The VAA has a 60-year land lease from the federal government on 1,143 acres. Is there land not being used right now that you would consider leasing to the right business?

Our first priority is aviation development. We do have some land that is surplus to our immediate requirements suitable for airport compatible developments and it’s usually industrial. We have leased land to companies for transportation, trucking, boat manufacturing, and even plastics.

There’s a lot of talk about air travel pricing itself out of the market as oil prices climb. What’s your take on the future of air travel?
In the past, there’s been a steady decline in the price of air travel. Are people going to not travel? I don’t believe that. People are travelling more and nothing is going to replace a face-to-face meeting. If you look at the distances we have in Canada, there is no alternative way of travelling these distances on the horizon, period.

What is the main complaint you hear from travellers using Victoria’s airport?

People want more non-stop service to more destinations. Last year, we added non-stops to San Francisco and Las Vegas, and they’ve proven very successful. If you have non-stop service, you generate new traffic.

What skill set does one need to run an airport?

Leading an enterprise of this size, you have to be knowledgeable in so many ways: financial, marketing, community relations, leasing, airport operations, security, people skills. And I think it helps to have a sense of humour.