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Photo op takes flight

Brandon mayor hopes return of air service lifts her profile

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BRANDON -- When 1,000 people attend an event in Brandon other than a Wheat Kings game, it's a big deal. When more than 1,000 Brandonites show up at the local airport to watch a plane land, however, it's really significant.

With the arrival of WestJet Encore's Bombardier Q400 aircraft Tuesday afternoon, passenger air service has returned to Brandon with daily flights to and from Calgary, and the entire Westman region is celebrating.

It has been 24 years since Canadian Airlines ceased daily service to and from the Wheat City and more than a decade since WestJet had a trial run of flights. It's a long drought that has forced Westman residents to make the long drive to Winnipeg, Minot or Regina for flights, often braving dangerous driving conditions.

It has also affected Westman's ability to attract and retain businesses. Gord Peters, president of Brandon-based Cando Contracting, told the Brandon Sun "it's huge for Cando. We keep air service, we keep our head office in Brandon. Without air service, Cando won't survive in Brandon. We have 300 employees across Cando, across the country. It's a huge day for us."

Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Craig Senchuk was surprised to see all the people at the airport to celebrate the inaugural flight. "I think it finally hit home that this is here, and here to stay as long as we support it and keep buying flights," he said.

Senchuk makes a critical point -- nobody should take this service for granted. WestJet is an employee-owned enterprise, in business to make money. If Westman doesn't fill the seats consistently, nobody should expect WestJet to continue a money-losing service.

That point was at least implicitly confirmed by WestJet Encore president Ferio Pugliese, who stated "We're happy to supply air service where the demand supports it."

Maintaining that demand will be a challenge, as there is no eastbound flight and the westbound flight does not connect through another city that would supplement passenger numbers. The afternoon departure time for the Brandon-Calgary flight will be a problem for those who need to make connections or attend meetings earlier in the day.

The burden is on Westman to make this work, and the stakes are high. If this fails, it could be decades before the region gets another opportunity.

The stakes are just as high for many local politicians. John F. Kennedy once wrote "Victory has a thousand fathers," and that describes the surprising number of elected and aspiring politicians basking in the glory of WestJet's arrival Tuesday.

At the top of the list is Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, who drove from Brandon to Winnipeg to catch a flight to Calgary on Monday at city expense, along with three city employees, so they could fly back on the Tuesday flight. She emerged from the plane to the cheers of the crowd, with her arms raised in victory -- a taxpayer-funded photo op.

After three controversial years in the mayor's chair, including a citizen-led tax revolt, allegations of conflict of interest and a threat to assault a city councillor, Decter Hirst is hoping the return of regular air service will carry her to re-election a year from now.

It's a plausible strategy, but there are a series of obstacles standing in her way, including the danger in taking credit for the work of others. WestJet's decision to restore air service to Brandon is a business decision, based on the company's own market research.

The strategy can only work if WestJet is still flying in and out of Brandon a year from now, and that is contingent on ongoing passenger demand.

Third, if any politician deserves credit for WestJet returning, it is recently retired MP Merv Tweed. The former transport committee chairman was a constant advocate for Westman air service and delivered vital airport upgrades that made the flights possible.

It is an unusual situation, in which the viability of air service is intertwined with the economic future of the region and of its politicians. It will be a year before we know how it works out.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2013 A13

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