Air Logistics at the Locks: The Two Airports of Sault Ste. Marie

Canada's Sault Ste. Marie Airport. (Photo: P199 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)])

Located on the United States-Canadian border, the dual-country town of Sault Ste. Marie is a catalyst in linking the Great Lakes of Lake Huron and Lake Superior with the U.S.-operated Soo Locks. The logistics town is the lynchpin for seagoing cargo ships that come packed with goods from agricultural centers of Canada and the United States.

In addition to ships, however, this border region creates a demand for two airports as the combined town of over 80,000 has passengers with demand for U.S. and Canadian destinations. And much like the city sizes themselves, the demand for each airport is not the same.

The largest and closest of the two commercial airports in Sault Ste. Marie is the one on the Canadian side of the International Boundary with an annual passenger count that now exceeds 200,000. The hybrid airport and racetrack operation is located eight miles southwest of the city and only accessible by road.

The airport is configured in an off-centered X-shape, with both 6,000 by 200-foot Runways 4/22 and 12/30 intersecting toward the southern end of the field. Just one terminal with a connected air traffic control tower makes up the passenger aspect of the airport which sees an average of 54,000 aircraft movements a year.

The aptly-named Sault Ste. Marie Airport is unique in its ownership, however, as the city is not directly responsible for the airport. This move came when the Canadian government created the National Airports Policy in 1994 and saw 23 airports in the province fall under local control should the city want to take over the airport.

Sault Ste. Marie, however, was picked up in 1998 by a private not-for-profit group called the Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corporation (SSMADC). The airport receives no money from the city and makes its revenue through airport activities to pay for operations and taxes.

To help create more revenue, the airport also operates a raceway located north of Runway 4/22 which holds year-round competitions. During the summer, the speedway is home to light dirt racing vehicles like Supercross bikes and ATVs while winter is home to snowmobile racing.

In the corporation’s last posted annual report, the SSMADC says that over $40 million has been invested into airport projects since the group took hold of the airport. These projects have included increasing the terminal’s seating capacity, buying new snow removal equipment and investing in hangar improvements. The airport believes that its increase in service and improvements have helped the Canadian city with airfare to the canal city falling over the years.

Situated in the Ontario province, the airport sees plenty of traffic targeted towards Toronto. Both Air Canada and Porter Airlines offer daily service to their hubs in Toronto at both Pearson International Airport and Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, respectively. Both airlines use Bombardier Dash 8s to service Sault Ste. Marie but with different variants as Porter uses its flagship Dash 8 Q400s while Air Canada uses the smaller Air Canada Express Dash 8-300s operated by regional carrier Jazz Aviation.

Air Canada does outnumber the Billy Bishop-based airline in flights offered, with four departures a day compared to Porter’s three. The latter, however, is more beneficial for regional connections while the former aids in nationwide and international connections in addition to serving regional destinations in Eastern Canada.

But when it comes to number of flights offered from Sault Ste. Marie the airline that usually is most active is that of Bearskin Airlines. The Sioux Lookout-based airline has up to four daily flights per route to Sudbury and Thunder Bay using 19-seat Fairchild Metroliners. The airline prioritizes on connecting both small and large cities in Ontario and is owned by Perimeter Aviation, who runs a similar strategy in the neighboring province of Manitoba.

The Canadian town of 73,000 does also land seasonal flights to Varadero, Cuba on Sunwing Airlines. The leisure airline flies the route in the winter only and the flights are made possible thanks to the Sault St. Marie branch of the Canadian Border Service Agency having an on-site crew at the small airport willing to welcome Canadians back from their vacations.

The airport is also serviced by two cargo airlines in FedEx and SkyLink. Both carriers use the Cessna 208 Super Cargomaster with FedEx linking the city to Sudbury and Toronto while SkyLink operates to Sudbury and Hamilton.

With both Porter and Air Canada already in town, the goal for the SSMADC is to reestablish a route with WestJet. The airport helped upgrade the JD Aero Technical Hangar on the grounds in 2016 and allowed JD Aero to perform maintenance on Q400 aircraft, which WestJet’s regional arm Encore operates.

While this improvement has not landed a WestJet flight yet, there is still optimism Canada’s second-largest carrier will return. WestJet has not serviced Sault St. Marie since 2003 when a 17-month experiment in service was canceled by the carrier who cited inconsistent demand and high taxes for the reason for the closure.

While the Canadian airfield has basked in multiple flights a day on various carriers, the same cannot be said for Chippewa County International Airport just across the border. The airport, located 15 miles south of the Michigan city of Sault Ste. Marie, is currently only serviced by SkyWest Airlines.

The regional carrier operates flights for Delta Air Lines to Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul on Bombardier CRJ-200s with the service being made possible by the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. Under the system, the U.S. government subsidies service to cities with unprofitable demand and many cities on the U.S.-Canadian border receive air service because of it, including the city of Ogdensburg, N.Y. as AirlineGeeks recently explored.

The Chippewa County International Airport was created on the grounds of the former Kincheloe Air Force Base which closed operation in 1977. The airport was home to 4239th Strategic Wing and housed Boeing B-52s and KC-135s during the height of the Cold War. Most former military structures remain standing at the now-public airport, including old hangars and the air traffic control tower.

Despite the airport going public, the airfield has not gained much traction both in general aviation and commercially. Delta’s two daily flights account for 41 percent of the airport’s yearly movements as most general aviation aircraft prefer to use the Sanderson Field Municipal Airport, which is much closer to Sault Ste. Marie.

Due to its quiet presence and large area, the airport was a filming location in 20th Century Fox’s movie Die Hard 2 for filming the exterior shots of an Evergreen International Boeing 747 that would be part of the story’s final fight at Washington Dulles International Airport. The airport is also uncontrolled meaning arriving and departing aircraft must communicate between themselves when using the airport.

The airport’s EAS service has long been tied to a route to Detroit that dates back to the Northwest Airlines days with Mesaba Airlines and Endeavor Air previously being responsible for the route on Saab 340s and Bombardier CRJ-200s. The recent renewal of Chippewa County’s EAS contract was offered at $2,729,306 and was granted to SkyWest, who was the only bidder, and will run until Jan. 31, 2021.

Demand has grown for the Michigan airfield over the years and the airport has increased its year-over-year passenger count. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the last twelve months of service saw passenger enplanements increase by 2,000 per to a new high of just over 24,000 passengers when compared to the 22,000 the previous 12 months produced.

Despite being the smaller airport for service, the ex-U.S. Air Force base boasts a larger runway and the sole jetbridge in the Sault St. Marie area. The airport’s Runway 16/34 is the largest, measuring 7,203 feet by 150 feet, and is crossed on its northern end by the 5,000-foot Runway 10/28. Runway 16/34 previously measured 12,000 feet but lack of demand for such a lengthy runway saw the airport close the southern end passed the former Taxiway B2. The northern 7,203 feet would be repaved in 2015 while the southern half would be closed to traffic and left to degrade in the Michigan climate.

This story was corrected on Nov. 8, 2019 at 10:59 p.m. ET to correct an error in the technical spelling of ‘hangars.’

Ian McMurtry

Although Ian McMurtry was never originally an avgeek, he did enjoy watching US Airways aircraft across western Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. He lived along the Pennsylvania Railroad and took a liking to trains but a change of scenery in the mid-2000s saw him shift more of an interest into aviation. He would eventually express this passion by taking flying lessons in mid-Missouri and joining AirlineGeeks in 2013. Now living in Wichita, Kansas, Ian is in college majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring in business administration at Wichita State University.
Ian McMurtry