Oasis in a Singed Land: Alberta’s Northern Gateway at Fort McMurray Airport Reenvisioned

A WestJet 737-700 (Photo: BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada (Westjet 737) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Situated in the secluded northern end of Alberta, the city of Fort McMurray has made itself known as being a working town, especially for local oil producing companies who make use of the Athabasca Oil Sands in the area. However, the woodlands of Alberta hit the town hard in 2016 when the Horse River Fire destroyed a fifth of the town’s structures. While Fort McMurray International Airport (YMM) was able to weather the fire, it hasn’t been able to escape the fallout of a town in a post-disaster state.

Flashing back to the earlier part of the decade, Fort McMurray had been on an upward trend since 2010 with the airport seeing passenger numbers double since the start of the decade. The airport had welcomed just 714,000 passengers in 2010 but increased productivity in the local Athabasca Oil Sands had seen the passenger numbers jump 183 percent to be 1.3 million passengers by 2014.

This increase had seen Fort McMurray greenlight a new terminal and airport overhaul project to help YMM thrive for the next decade. The airport’s new terminal capable of handling 1.5 million passengers per year would come with all the selling points of Canada’s remote north, including a thermally insulated structure to reduce carbon burn, a blue and green lighting system similar to the Aurora Borealis and exposed Canadian pine beams along the ceiling.

The new four-jetbridge and eight-hardstand terminal would open in 2014, a year where the airport would welcome its most passengers ever. Alongside the new terminal would come a new one-gate charter terminal on the northern end of the airfield for private companies and charter aircraft to utilize.

But the upward passenger trend at YMM had run its course and in 2015, the airport saw its first decline in travelers in the decade with a 16 percent drop in traffic due to oil companies reducing production in the oil sands. Then the Horse River Fire would suppress traffic even further, taking the airport back to its 2010 number with 713,000 passing through YMM by 2017.

The fallout of the lack of demand has been noticed by airport staff throughout the years. As passenger counts dropped, the airport has had to cut costs including removing seven employees. The airport has also filed an insurance claim with FM Global in hopes of retrieving some of its lost revenue with the airport claiming roughly $34 million in damages were caused by the wildfire.

The drop in revenue has also suspended the airport’s current overhaul plans, which calls for a 1,500-foot runway expansion to the 7,503-foot runway 07/25, consolidated fire rescue building, a new hotel attached to the main terminal and a dedicated cargo ramp.

In its current state, the commercial airport operations at the airport are mostly Southern Alberta-bound regional jets with both Air Canada and WestJet offering regional aircraft flights to Edmonton and Calgary with WestJet occasionally upgrading the Edmonton flight to a mainline Boeing 737. Mainline aircraft at YMM are mostly bound for Toronto with both Air Canada and WestJet deploying either Airbus A320 family or Boeing 737 aircraft, respectively, on the route. Finally, local carriers offer connections outside of Fort McMurray with McMurray Aviation and Northwestern Air flying to Ft. Chipewyan.

Charter operations can also bring in a variety of aircraft to Fort McMurray with Air Canada, Canadian North, WestJet, First Air and Air North all making appearances to carry workers to the Athabasca region. With no rail service and the only highway in the region taking five hours to get between Fort McMurray and Edmonton, it is common to see oil companies use Fort McMurray International Airport to bring in workers for the oil fields or pipeline construction.

The airport’s charter operations compete with the much smaller Albian Aerodrome in the northern town of Fort MacKay, which is closer to Shell, Suncor Energy, and Syncrude’s Athabasca Oil Sands work areas and is connected to the Shell Canada built Albian Village.

Despite being the third largest airport in Alberta the airport is still very much open to the public and attempts to connect itself to the locals. Fort McMurray International Airport features various artworks from the local area that are displayed on the landside portion of the terminal. Furthermore, the airport offers free three-hour parking for those who stop in to have a meal or shop the pre-security section of YMM.

These shops range from airport “to-go” shops like Burger King, Tim Hortons and Nicholby Convenience to sit-down restaurants like Formoso Neapolitan Pizzeria. The airport also offers post-security restaurants, with Starbucks, and Earls Kitchen + Bar highlighting the selections on offer. Fort McMurray offers recreational areas for landside travelers with either a trip to the outdoor patio or airport observation are being provided.

While the airport, along with the Fort McMurray area as a whole, is still hurting from the events of 2016 and the catastrophic fire that destroyed roughly one in every five structures, the increase in production from the Athabasca Oil Sands and the slow return to a normal life in Fort McMurray has seen the airport stem the losses of previous years. Although the fire and airport’s closure skewed traffic numbers to a double-digit percentage drop in 2016, the airport has managed to stem the large passenger losses to just 4 percent between 2016 and 2017 with the airport expecting to see an increase or similar traveler counts in 2018 compared to 2017.

Although the rebuilding period for both Fort McMurray will be lengthy, and that will be an issue for the airport in the near future, YMM’s new terminal and previous success show that when the Athabasca Oil Sands come calling for demand, Fort McMurray can answer the call.

Update: Since publishing, WestJet has announced that they will cease operations on the Toronto-Fort McMurray route. Additionally, a prior version of this article stated that YYM cut 50 employee positions and that a Subway restaurant was in the terminal. According to the airport, staffing levels have remained the same and Subway has since left the airport.

Ian McMurtry

Ian McMurtry

Ian has been an avgeek since 2004 when he started spotting US Airways Express planes at Johnstown Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Wichita and enjoys spotting planes in Kansas City and Wichita as well as those flying at high altitudes over his home. He is a pilot with more than 40 hours of experience behind a Cessna 172, Diamond DA-20, and Piper PA-28. He flies Southwest Airlines on most of his domestic flights and Icelandair when flying to Europe. Ian’s route map spans from Iceland and Alaska in the north to St. Maarten in the south. He is a student at Wichita State University, where he will study aerospace and mechanical engineering.
Ian McMurtry