Airport used to serve as principal hub for airline service in Western Canada
Joel Dryden · CBC News · December 07, 2021
Boarding a flight at the Lethbridge Airport used to be a somewhat taxing experience.
For example, the tightly packed security area had no washrooms, meaning one would need to leave the area and then re-enter should nature call.
New renovations in the security area have solved that problem.
The upgrades also include the addition of a water bottle refill station, more seating and other modern conveniences common at major airports.
It’s all part of a larger renovation of the airport, which was unveiled to media on Tuesday. The grand opening of the newly renovated airport is scheduled for late January 2022.
“It’s super exciting,” said Lethbridge Mayor Blaine Hyggen. “I’ve been out here numerous times flying out of Lethbridge, and to be able to see the changes, are extraordinary.”
The city initially invested $2.6 million into the airport and was able to secure an additional $23 million in provincial and grant funding.
The hold room at the airport has been expanded, meaning more passengers will be able to board additional airlines, and larger aircraft will be able to be housed.
A new baggage carousel is also part of the facelift. The airfield and pavement have also been updated, which the city hopes will eventually attract more airlines and aircraft to Lethbridge.
“This has been huge,” said Cameron Prince, airport operations manager. “I’m excited to see where we’re going, and see the investment in the airport going forward.”
WestJet is the only airline providing service at the Lethbridge airport. Air Canada stopped providing service as of April 1, 2020, amid the airline industry being hard hit by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, the airport had about 40 flights per week from Lethbridge to Calgary. Now it’s around 11 per week.
A former hub in Western Canada
Though it functions today mostly to provide airline service to and from Calgary, Lethbridge’s airport officially opened in 1939 as the principal hub for Western Canada.
“If you were going from Vancouver to Calgary, you had to fly from Vancouver to Lethbridge, change planes and fly north to Calgary,” said Ian MacLachlan, professor emeritus at the University of Lethbridge in the department of geography and environment.
“So we were a real airline hub at a time when air traffic was a much, much smaller volume than it is today.”
At that time, navigation was not nearly as sophisticated as it is now. For that reason, airlines had to follow a chain of airports that spanned the country, MacLachlan explained — and in Western Canada, that chain of airports essentially hugged the border with the United States.
“They followed the southernmost CPR line all the way across, and it was a lot easier to get across the Rockies at the Crowsnest Pass than it was to go way up north to Calgary and go further north through the Kicking Horse pass,” he said.
On the British Columbia side of the line, there were multiple good candidates for emergency airports, which was important given the less reliable airports at the time.
“And the weather was a little bit better through the southern route,” MacLachlan said.
“So, that’s where the Trans-Canada Air Lines followed. So Lethbridge was the hub of Western Canada from 1939 until, really, the North Star — which was a pressurized aircraft, far more advanced than the old Lockheed Electra — took over.”
Ownership of the Lethbridge Airport was transferred from Lethbridge County to the City of Lethbridge in 2018, a move that city officials cited as being integral to the airport competing at an international level.
Today, the city said it hopes that the new renovations will increase passenger traffic and raise funds, suggesting that the fully developed lands at the airport could provide $10 million annually in lease revenue and an additional $10 million in tax revenue.
Rik Barry is chairman of the Time Air Historical Society, a group that aims to preserve aviation history in southern Alberta.
He said these renovations are important, allowing for a much better interaction between the travelling public and the airport itself.
“Hopefully, that will bring an impetus to having more service into Lethbridge,” he said. “It would be great to again see direct service out to the coast, which was lost about 30 years ago.”