Fasten your seatbelts

92 years ago, aviation took flight in Winnipeg and, despite current pandemic-related headwinds, continues to soar

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In 1928, Winnipeg’s aviation future took off, but 92 years later, its flight path has run into a bit of turbulence.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/05/2020 (857 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 1928, Winnipeg’s aviation future took off, but 92 years later, its flight path has run into a bit of turbulence.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s grip on business large and small has remained tighter than an airplane seatbelt. This isn’t the first time our province’s rich aviation history has faced hardship and plight — and it certainly won’t be the last.

 

TRANS-CANADA AIRLINES A new hangar is visible at Stevenson Field in Winnipeg in 1938 as a Lockheed 14 comes in for a landing.

IN THE BEGINNING

In 1928, the simple 165-acre field was christened Stevenson Aerodrome, after noted Manitoba aviator and pioneer bush pilot Capt. Fred J. Stevenson. The current Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, which opened in 2006, sprawls across 1,500 hectares with two runways, 28 gates, and serves about 4.5 million passengers a year.

SUPPLIED Stevenson Aerodrome was officially opened May 27, 1928. The plaque was unveiled by the parents of the late Capt. F.J. Stevenson.

From baggage carousels to the security line to even the number of passenger planes flying these days, the airport’s emptiness is the embodiment of government health protocols — but it also echoes its humble beginnings.

Standing on an open prairie field on May 27, 1928, some 7,000 people gathered, believing, celebrating, and soaking up a new age of transportation. It wouldn’t take long before the airport transformed aviation history, eventually becoming the first international airport in Canada.

As the airport played a pivotal role delivering mail, passengers, and even freight, it also served as the flight training headquarters for the British Commonwealth Air Training Program as the country prepared for the Second World War.

 

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Stevenson Field dedication ceremony. May 1928

JET AGE BEGINS

In 1958, Stevenson Field was renamed Winnipeg International Airport and thanks to the period commonly known as the “Jet Age,” air travel became popularized. As the 1980s recession crept into the 1990s, some airports were feeling the implications of an unstable economy, but the Winnipeg Airports Authority began replacing runways and investing in the cargo sector and community connections.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESs fileS A plane flies over piles of gravel needed to construct a second main runway in May 1963.

By 1997, WAA took over airport operations from Transport Canada and began investing more into the airport campus. The WAA said jobs supported by the airport climbed to 18,500 from 7,000 and the economic impact increased to $4.3 billion from $384 million annually.

This year, that record will be broken not by an ultimate high, but by a new low. WAA projects it will serve fewer than two million people in 2020.

 

WHAT’S NEXT

Barry Rempel became CEO of WAA in 2001, right after the 9/11 terror attacks, which ultimately transformed airport security. He says he anticipates another transformation to occur after this pandemic.

“Just after 9/11 we had a whole bunch of new security requirements that at first seemed intrusive but now everybody is used to,” said Rempel.

“I really do believe that what we will see, in the days ahead… things like temperature checks at the airport… and even now in Canada you have to be wearing a mask, some sort of facial covering if you are going through a security checkpoint or when you are boarding an aircraft.”

JACK ABLETT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESs fileS Air traffic controllers Bill Sersum (from left), Bob Smith, Darryl Pernisie and Don Deally at Winnipeg International Airport in 1972.

While Rempel remains optimistic about the airport’s future, WAA has grappled with a significant drop in passenger travel.

“On the passenger side, we’ve lost 97 per cent of our market… and since basically March 15, we’ve been well below 200 passengers departing per day. So cargos clearly are not going to make up for that kind of a volume,” said Rempel, adding he anticipates passenger travel won’t return to typical levels until 2024.

“In terms of what we are working with the air carriers on, I expect that we’ll (this summer) see a return to…probably about 25 per cent of our former capacity.”

Until then, Rempel said WAA will continue working on relationships with new and existing cargo carriers to build upon the airport’s “carrier-friendly environment.”

“What’s fascinated me about Winnipeg forever is how connected this community is to its airport… if you go back to 92 years ago today, there were 7,000 people that came out to the airport in their spring finest, to launch what was then Stevenson Field, which was basically a dirt patch. But that was a symbol to them of their connectivity to the community. From that day to today, this city more than any other that I’ve lived in or visited has a more direct connection with that access to the world than any other city.”

nadya.pankiw@freepress.mb.ca

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Winnipeg Airport Authority CEO Barry Rempel.
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