BY RICHARD GILBERT - Construction of a new terminal building at Fort McMurray Airport in northern Alberta is nearing completion, after the project was delayed several times.
“The airport was in the wrong place, oriented in the wrong direction, the wrong size and the wrong configuration,” said Scott Clements, CEO of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority.
“So, we really threw out that money. We threw out $12 million.”
The Fort McMurray Airport Authority is preparing for a grand opening gala event in the new terminal building on May 31.
In order to reach this milestone, the airport authority has overcome some significant problems.
“The growth at this airport was already way beyond the capacity of the terminal in 2006,” he said.
“It was run by the municipality, which was so overwhelmed in terms of infrastructure across the spectrum, that they couldn’t pay enough attention to the airport and it became a political football.”
It was decided that the governance model of a regional airport commission was not working. So, a new airport authority was created under the Regional Airports Act. This enabled the airport to qualify for funding from the Alberta Capital Finance Authority
“The advantage of this model is that it is protected from political and bureaucratic interference,” said Clements, who became the CEO of the new airport authority in October 2010.
The first thing the new board did was halt construction on the new $100 million terminal building, which began in the summer of 2009.
This decision was made after a pre-services contract was awarded, which included clearing land, removing muskeg and replacing it with gravel.
They reviewed plans for the new 8,400 square metre terminal, which was designed to increase capacity to one million passengers per year.
The board came up with some new development options.
For example, passenger numbers at Fort McMurray Airport jumped to nearly 1.2 million in 2013, which is a 25 per cent increase over the previous high of 958,072 in 2012.
The original 950 square metre terminal, built in 1984, was designed to handle 280,000 passengers annually.
The recent oil boom increased annual passenger movements from 223,000 in 2004 to 694,000 in 2008.
“We very quickly designed the right building and found that we could afford to invest about $200 million and determined we could borrow that,” said Clements.
“We did the engineering and then went out to the market.”
McFarlane + Biggar Architects and Designers were the architects of the new 15,000 square metre, three-level airport terminal with the capacity to handle 1.5 million passengers.
E Construction was awarded the site works contract in May 2011, while Ledcor Construction Ltd. was awarded the contract to construct the new $258 million terminal in August.
Construction of the new terminal began officially during a ground breaking ceremony on Aug. 29, 2011 with former premier Ed Stelmach.
The new terminal incorporates technology for wood construction called cross laminated timber (CLT) panels.
It has been integrated into the roof structure, along with exposed structural glulam members.
The CLT is manufactured at Structurlam’s new plant in Penticton, B.C. and about 50 per cent of the wood in the terminal is beetle-kill pine.
Other features include four aircraft bridges and eight aircraft parking stands; more than 2,200 parking stalls with power and valet parking, as well as 15 brand name retail and food and beverage outlets including two full-service restaurants.
The airport master plan also includes a four-star hotel, which will open in 2016, complete with a restaurant/bar, meeting rooms, gym/pool, business centre and heated underground parking.
It will be connected to the new terminal by a climate-controlled pedway.
In addition, about 1,267 acres will be made available for new commercial and light industrial development.
There is also a plan to add another 1,500 feet to the runway to accommodate cargo aircraft when funding becomes available.
The existing north terminal building has undergone a series of renovations to keep up with the growing passenger traffic.
Washroom facilities have been updated including new partitions, sinks, counters and ceiling tiles.
Improvements to washroom ventilation have also been completed.
The current air terminal will be re-purposed to become a general aviation terminal for business aviation, private charters and cargo operations.
The grand opening gala will feature Colonel Chris Hadfield as master of ceremonies and the Canadian rock band Bachman + Turner.
Passengers will begin using the terminal on June 9.
The Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds will lead a weekend of aerial performances between May 31 and June 1.
New airport faced a number of delays
The Fort McMurray Airport expansion project has experienced three delays in the last few years, before construction began on the new terminal.
The Council of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo approved funding for a $100 million expansion project in November 2007.
However, the project, which included a new terminal building, second runway and additional parking, was halted in July 2008.
The delay occurred after RBC Financial Group pulled out of a $10-million loan to the Airport Commission because council imposed new operating protocols on its subsidiary corporations.
The policy change put the airport commission’s authority to run the project, as well as the security of the loan, into question.
The Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce argued that failing to start airport redevelopment on time would help fast-track alternative airstrip proposals and create an economic disadvantage for Wood Buffalo.
The airport expansion was approved for a second time by council in November 2008, after council engaged independent consultants to conduct due diligence and further evaluate the feasibility and risks of the proposed expansion.
The airport commission received permission to borrow $110 million to finance the project from the Alberta Capital Finance Authority.
Scott Clements, the CEO Fort McMurray Airport Authority, decided to delay construction on the project to undertake a review in October 2010. Construction of the new terminal began officially in August 2011.