Ottawa mulls direct flights to U.S. technology industry

OTTAWA (OBJ) — Canda’s capital city is edging ever closer to supporting a daily, non-stop flight to a northern California destination, according to local airport officials.

But it will take just a little more demand from Ottawa travelers before an airline will commit, said Ottawa International Airport Authority president Paul Benoit, and perhaps some added financial incentives. Benoit also said the federal government should plow ahead with a recent European Union proposal to extend open skies agreements between Canada and Europe.

Last April, the authority and the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation surveyed OCRI’s members for a better understanding of corporate flying patterns in Ottawa. About 13,000 employees in the Ottawa area were represented by the firms that responded, said Michael Crockatt, the authority’s vice-president of business development and marketing. Of those, the majority – 86 per cent – consider air transport vital.

Why fly? “Far and away, to visit customers or to visit suppliers,” said Crockatt. “Some other categories showed up, but those were the main reasons.”

The surveyors were hoping to find out, among other things, if there was interest in re-establishing a connection between Ottawa and Silicon Valley, and perhaps another European destination. Currently, Ottawa is only connected to Europe with regular commercial flights to London. An Ottawa-San Jose route was cancelled in 2001, just months after starting up.

Some Ottawans took advantage of the direct flight between the capital of Canada and California’s tech capital, including then-mayor Bob Chiarelli, who was on Air Canada’s inaugural flight, towards the end of Ottawa’s high tech boom.

The route, meant as a daily connector between silicon valleys north and south, came to a crashing halt when demand subsided after the tech bust.

Since then, the IT industry in Ottawa has rebounded somewhat. Six years on, some figures suggest just as many people are working in Ottawa’s tech sector today as during the heydays.

But is there enough demand to merit restarting a daily flight to San Jose? Likely never, said Benoit.

“San Jose was a mistake,” he told members of The Ottawa Partnership. “Airlines serve communities,” he said. “But at the end of the day, they need to be profitable. The San Jose route was strictly for a tech market. There was a (tech) bust, for lack of a better word. Air Canada . . . lost a tremendous amount of money.”

After crunching the numbers, Mr. Benoit mulled over the idea that the airport’s next big route be San Francisco.

“Nothing is imminent, but there is a much better chance” with San Francisco, he said.

Its airport was also listed as the most popular U.S. west coast airport in the authority/OCRI survey, capturing two thirds of votes, Crockatt said.

The results were “good,” said Mr. Crockatt, and the numbers are getting high enough to likely catch the attention of some airlines.

“We think the business case is close,” he said. “Some of these initiatives can take years to develop into a service. For some of the airlines, the route is now on the radar screen. Our job is to be persistent, to continue to do our research. There will come a time when the case will be strong for an airline to say, ‘yeah, this will make us money.’

“The key is making Ottawa the one,” he added. “A lot of airlines now aren’t in growth mode. If they add a route in one place, they might take one away from somewhere else.”

Just 85 kilometres from San Jose, San Francisco is an easier sell to wider array of ticket buyers: tourists, transiting passengers and Ottawa’s high tech sector still looking for face time with colleagues in the original Silicon Valley. A rented vehicle and a drive down the 101 highway, and a San Francisco passenger can be in San Jose in less than an hour.

“San Francisco is much bigger,” said Benoit. “It’s a major international airport. It’s a hub. It’s got a lot more in terms of passenger market. Nothing against San Jose, but there won’t be anything near the same number of passengers.”

The authority is in touch with major airlines, Mr. Benoit said, crunching numbers and negotiating incentives to lure them to invest in new routes from Ottawa. The authority could offer as much as $1 million in incentives to a major airline, he said, depending on a variety of factors. They include breaks on landing fees for up to a year.

“We try and present the facts to the carriers as we see it,” said Mr. Benoit. “We also understand that in the start-up of a route, there’s a lot of costs involved in it. We try to improve that.”

A new European destination, possibly Frankfurt, is also “close,” but not yet likely, the surveyors added, with other possible destinations including Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

— Ottawa Business Journal

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