Federal minister Amarjeet Sohi of the Infrastructure and Communities ministry at the Penticton Regional Airport Wednesday.

Federal minister Amarjeet Sohi of the Infrastructure and Communities ministry at the Penticton Regional Airport Wednesday.

Federal minister on board with Penticton airport renos

Minister Amarjeet Sohi was in Penticton as part of a swing through the Okanagan

The federal minister of infrastructure and communities was in Penticton Wednesday as part of his swing through the Okanagan and he liked what he saw.

Particularly pleasing to Amarjeet Sohi was his visit to Transport Canada’s Penticton Regional Airport and the current $6.5 million facilities expansion and improvement project that began in March.

Federal minister Amarjeet Sohi of the Infrastructure and Communities ministry at the Penticton Regional Airport Wednesday.

Mark Brett/Western News

“We’re here in Penticton today to see how infrastructure investments expand the airport to allow more passengers to come,” said Sohi, the MP for Edmonton Mill Woods. “This airport has seen phenomenal growth over the last few years and needs to be expanded. And it will allow the economic growth to happen in this region, as well as not only the immediate jobs from the construction, but acting as a catalyst for further economic growth and building a stronger economy.”

Sohi also made stops in Vernon and Kelowna during the day.

“The importance of airports for regional economies is becoming more and more important an element,” said Sohi. “So this investment into the Penticton Airport, and the previous ones, will definitely allow for the expansion to happen for passengers and the experience that people will have when they’re flying in here.”

Over $7 million in runway improvement work was done in 2014 at YYF which saw passenger volume go up 64 per cent from 2014 to 2016. Aircraft movement during that time was up 18 per cent.

Additional work in the terminal was done in 2016.

The current construction phase will reconfigure the main concourse, expand the arrivals hall and baggage claim and add a new food service space, with the overall completion date set for Sept. 2019.

Other improvements include the washroom facilities, clearance and security screening areas. The project was awarded to the Ledcor Group.

“The minister’s visit this morning was really important for us at Transport Canada,” said new airport manager Kerri Haybittle-Raffel, who estimated the airport is experiencing two to three per cent growth annually. “Just the heavy investment they have made in the airport. It’s really important to show the progress that we’ve made to date and see the early stages, and we really hope he’ll come back as the project is completed just to see how the passenger experience has improved here in Penticton.

“One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard is really just about the congestion. We have some tight timelines with Air Canada and WestJet, so having expanded space to really have the passengers comfort in mind.”

Amarjeet Sohi Minister of Infrastructure and Communities (second from right) at the Penticton Regional Airport construction site.

Mark Brett/Western News

Both the minister and airport manager feel the current improvements will be looked on favourably by the two commercial carriers servicing the region.

“If you build the infrastructure, it’s easier for airlines to expand, but if you don’t have the infrastructure then they can’t. So I think having this kind of expansion and investment in the airports gives them this flexibility to expand service,” said Sohi.

Added Haybittle-Raffel: “Should the (larger) planes become available or upgraded, we’re ready for them.”

That was one of the main topics when Sohi, Penticton Mayor Andrew Jakubeit, councillors and city staff met prior to the minister’s airport tour.

“Obviously the airport investment is probably the most significant infrastructure improvement we’ve had in our area, and now we’re trying to lobby some of the carriers to improve their air service and the planes with the chance of landing in the winter months (low cloud times),” said Jakubeit.

He added improvements could possibly increase the number of flights to Calgary and Vancouver.

The city is hoping to convince Air Canada to upgrade the Dash 8-300 (50 seats) currently flying the Penticton/Vancouver YVR route to the 74-seat Q400. It has more modern avionics, which allows for operations in low-ceiling conditions, like those that sometimes prevent the Dash-8-300 from landing here or cause flight cancellation.

The city is also hoping to have a study done, with funding from neighbouring communities, to build a business case in that regard.

Amarjeet Sohi Minister of Infrastructure and Communities talks with Ledcor employee James Derkson on the construction site at Penticton Regional Airport Wednesday.

Mark Brett/Western News

“For us, in terms of the passengers, we generally service everybody from from kind of Summerland-Peachland down to Osoyoos and the Similkameen, so everything I hear is that people want to fly out of here,” said Haybittle-Raffel. “We’re just trying to better the passenger experience in service.”

Visit welcomed

“Refreshing” is how Penticton Mayor Andrew Jakubeit described Wednesday’s meeting with federal Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

“The 10 years I’ve been here, we really haven’t had a federal cabinet minister sit down with us and just get the lay of the land. I thought he was very sincere and genuine and down to Earth and we’re very appreciative he took the time to come and see us,” said Jakubeit, who was joined by Couns. Campbell Watt and Andre Martin and city staff. “As much as he was prodding us for answers, we were prodding him for answers or planting seeds for help down the road and it was, I thought, very beneficial.”

During the nearly 60-minute session the topics ranged from the city’s $100-million infrastructure deficit to the opioid and homeless crisis.

“It’s always good when you can bend a minister’s ear on poverty reduction and housing and addictions, which are probably the biggest thing that we’re sort of — and many communities are — struggling with, even though it’s not his department,” said Jakubeit. “I was very happy to have a federal minister come in with no real set agenda and hear what was happening and the concerns in our community and have a candid conversation on what programs need to be looked at in our region, instead of someone in Ottawa deciding what our priorities should be.”

Other issues that did come up under the minister’s portfolio was B.C. Transit (funded in part by the federal government); the infrastructure of the city’s aging facilities, in particular Memorial Arena; expanding water systems and the city’s participation in the Smart Cities Challenge.

“We ended the meeting with that Infrastructure Canada program, so just some feedback on perhaps having more finalists, we weren’t a finalist, they were the Calgary’s and Richmond’s, the bigger centres. So how does a 34,000-resident community compete?” said Jakubeit. “Just making sure there was dialogue coming back to us on where it (application) had strengths and where more work needed to be done or why we didn’t score, so just a better understanding.”

Penticton Western News

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