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Cleared for takeoff: reaching new heights in Kelowna

Kelowna International Airport is thriving – and still growing.

For anyone in the B.C. business sector who appreciates success stories, the growth of the Kelowna International Airport reads like a “how to” manual.

“The most important thing that this community did was to take control of the airport,” explains YLW Director Sam Samaddar when asked to share the Kelowna airport’s recipe for achievement.

That achievement is rather impressive. One of the few municipally-owned airports in Canada is now the tenth busiest in the nation, after surpassing Victoria’s passenger traffic in 2018.

“Kelowna and the Okanagan as a region is growing in terms of maturity,” says Samaddar, pointing to last year’s passenger count of just over 2 million travelers.

He also underscores YLW’s determination to remain a “low cost” airport as the most effective strategy to catch the interest of new carriers:

“We look at the fees and charges that we charge the airlines and we try to keep that in the lower one-third of Canada’s airports.”

Asked what advice he would give other communities looking to develop their airport facilities, Samaddar is adamant that infrastructure is key:

"The reason Kelowna International has excelled is the fact that we first focused on better runways." He is also certain that West Jet would never have arrived in Kelowna had the airport not extended its runway in order to handle larger jets.

A veteran of aviation management who launched his career at Vancouver International, Samaddar is adamant that YLW’s 38% passenger traffic growth between 2013 and 2018 wouldn’t have been achieved without the backing of local governments and residents.

Sam Samaddar

“You have to be connected to the communities you serve,” says Samaddar, although he admits that airports can’t grow without bums in seats. That challenge was met with the help of community marketing plans, submitted to the six airlines currently serving Kelowna.

The airport’s success is boastworthy for the city’s mayor, Colin Basran, who sees more opportunity ahead.

“What excites me the most is that we are in the process of redeveloping land on the east side of the airport which will open up further opportunities for private aviation-related companies” says Basran, who chairs the local Airport Advisory Committee.

KF Aerospace (formerly Kelowna Flightcraft) is anxious to grow its YLW presence, already currently Kelowna’s largest private sector employer with a staff list approaching 1,000. Overall, the airport supports approximately 1,600 jobs.

“Airports tend to be an economic gateway for their communities,” boasts Samaddar who excitedly points to future expansion for YLW, funded through airport revenues and Improvement Fees only. More than 30 projects are planned in the main passenger terminal, baggage handling and security screening areas.

With this year’s passenger traffic at Kelowna International already showing a 3.5% increase over last year at this time, it’s easy to understand why air-travel optimism is flying high in the Okanagan.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticism on Twitter @kammornanchor and email: [email protected].

Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.