Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 27, 2016
It was an announcement that caught most casual observers off guard — a single tweet from WestJet’s Calgary based office on Monday sharing that the airline would be expanding its services temporarily in the city of Brandon by opening up the long-sought-after eastern route to Toronto.
It was welcome news for this community.
We Brandonites have spent years lamenting the lack of some of the “finer things in life.” Often we have yearned for the tandem restaurants of Olive Garden and Red Lobster to make their appearance in the province’s second-largest centre, or spent many a day dusting off the red carpet for mega retailer and discount centre Costco. The last of that trifecta was originally air travel, and more recently a plane headed east.
WestJet answered the community’s call in 2013 for the return of air travel, and again have stepped up to the plate with this past Monday’s announcement.
The eastern route had long been an elusive target for the region, and now, even in the interim represents the positive mindset that Brandon is a progressive and growing city, while offering a boon for politicians in the community.
The Brandon Municipal Airport expansion of 2014 was the biggest of the dominoes to fall into place, undoubtedly aiding in Monday’s announcement. That expansion plan came on the heels of WestJet settling into life in the city, it happened mere months ahead of the municipal election and it showed there was hope for further progress in the region.
At the time, the expansion held political potential for our embattled mayor as well, offering the type of promise politicians at all levels like to sink their teeth into. The plan was and will continue to be Brandon’s “skin in the game,” a turn of phrase made popular by former mayor Shari Decter-Hirst. The expansion effort could be considered the crowning achievement of her time in office — and although not the sole reason for WestJet’s enhanced operations in the city, it definitely didn’t hurt.
Since that time, it has been touted by all levels of government as a shining example of their team’s investment in the region, and even though our former mayor did not wear the chains of office long enough to see it through, she should be commended for helping get the project off the ground.
Monday’s announcement was likely not to have happened had it not been for her council and staff engaging all levels of government and the community in the revitalization of our ailing airport.
Now with WestJet opening up service heading east, albeit on a trial basis, it should further indicate to the region as well as the business sector that our city is in the air travel game.
Aside from the blip where second daily flights headed west were added and then removed, Brandonites have put their money where their mouth was when it came to utilizing the service. The ridership numbers are not public, but all indications have been positive.
I had the opportunity in January of this year to venture to Calgary as a connection to another centre and the flight was easily 75 per cent full heading there and a little over 60 per cent full coming back mid-week. Not huge passenger totals, but enough likely to keep the planes running for the foreseeable future.
Where the “rubber hits the road” though is in the eastern route, as it effectively opens up the community to nearly any possible destination. The flight to the “Big Smoke” is likely to be a tougher road — it is a bigger plane and a shorter timeline, but clearly isn’t outside the realm of possibilities should the ridership be conducive to making it viable for WestJet.
It is surely to help the provincial NDP as well. Drew Caldwell and company have long touted the expansion of the Brandon Municipal Airport as a sign of their government’s investment in the community. By sticking around long enough to see it through to completion, you would be hard pressed to argue that fact. The very idea that a community partner like WestJet is willing to look at further expansion of their service will be extremely positive on the campaign trail for them, and should not be neglected by whoever forms government moving forward.
Which leaves us to wonder one last thing — will the NDP be around long enough to see the wheels up on their investment? Or will they begrudgingly join the ranks of former mayors and federal governments that didn’t have the opportunity to cross the finish line but clearly were there when the race started?