The airport code YYJ has become synonymous with excellence. It stands for Victoria International Airport, and it stands out because of the airport’s commitment to creating a clean, safe, harmonious and efficient travel experience.

Q&A with Victoria Airport Authority

In 2019, Victoria International Airport was the busiest airport in Canada, with an annual passenger count of 2 million. After almost two years of drastically reduced service due to the pandemic, YYJ resumed international flights last November, and is set to outperform 2021’s year’s passenger count of just over 674,000.

Airlines flying in and out of Victoria include Air Canada, WestJet, Swoop, Alaska Airlines, Pacific Coastal, Air North, Flair Air, and beginning May 2022, Lynx Air.

YYJ has an award-studded history of excellence. In 2017, it was rated one of the top 10 most-loved airports in the world by CNN Travel, and it is the 2012, 2014 and 2020 winner of Best Regional Airport in North America by Airports Council International. 

Even during the pandemic, YYJ was a top performer, bringing home the  2021 Airport Service Quality Best Hygiene Measures by Region (North America) award.

YYJ is known for its showcase of local vendors in its gift shop, as well as local food and beverage vendors Spinnakers, Fickle Fig Market and Fresh Cup Coffee. Victoria Distillers YYJ is the first active distillery at an airport in Canada. Customers can experience having their very own bottle being dispensed, labelled and sealed to take away.

In addition, the airport hosts a revolving exhibition of paintings by Vancouver Island artists.

The not-for-profit Victoria Airport Authority (VAA) administers the airport and the lands within it. These include a 10-kilometre multi-use path along its perimeter, popular with cyclists and walkers, the BC Aviation Museum, flying schools, air freight and courier services, fuel dealers, and aircraft maintenance facilities, as well as industrial tenants and a 115,000-square-foot Amazon “last mile” delivery facility currently under construction. 

Named one of BC’s Top 100 Employers for 2022 by Canada’s Top 100 Employers (for the third year in a row), VAA has been a member of SIPP since 2018. 

President and CEO Geoff Dickson explains the role the VAA plays in growing our region’s economy, and how the challenges it has experienced are influencing its service and community goals.

Geoff Dickson, President & CEO, Victoria Airport Authority

Why did you join South Island Prosperity Partnership?

YYJ is a vital economic generator for the region, and one of the keys for economic prosperity is a thriving airport. In order for an airport to grow and attract air service, it needs population growth, household income growth, economic development, and more businesses located in the region. 

SIPP’s plans to facilitate these outcomes are well aligned with our priorities and we are pleased to be a part of this partnership.

What do you see as a key to growing a resilient, robust economic future for our region?

Continuing to attract top talent and industry to the region and to encourage that living on the island is much more viable than one might think. In the past, Vancouver Island was not necessarily seen as a realistic alternative for businesses to locate to, when compared to many other urban centres. 

Technology has helped overcome this and the re-evaluation by corporate Canada on how we work will help accelerate our region’s viability. Increased air connectivity will be an important factor in helping create a robust economic future as I believe business will continue to be conducted in person. 

Smart growth is essential. I think much of the country, if not the world, looks to the west coast for progressive thinking. It is aspirational for many who may want to eventually live and work here.  Our airport, for example, plans to become carbon neutral by 2030 and it is these types of initiatives that not only align with the broader community goals but they align with individual values that help make our region a desirable place to work and live.

What is our region’s secret sauce when it comes to competing internationally to attract quality talent, businesses with household sustaining jobs, and investment?

The region is right sized, meaning it has many of the essential amenities of a larger region: culture, art, sports, dining, etc., without some of the negative trappings such as traffic congestion and crime. A more balanced lifestyle is perhaps easier to achieve here and the pure beauty of the region itself is an attraction. We must, however, keep working to simplify the complexities of our many municipal jurisdictions as newcomers find it somewhat vexing.

Our geography is unique in that you do not often find the major urban centre separated from the provincial or state capital by a body of water. That helps drive incredible transportation infrastructure as we have one of the largest ferry operators globally headquartered here, one of the few scheduled helicopter routes operating anywhere, the largest scheduled float-plane operator in the world serving our market as well as the 11th largest airport in the country. The story needs to be told more exactly how well connected our island community is. 

What are you most excited about in terms of your own organization’s plans and potential?

There are a number of things that come to mind.  The first is our Sustainability Plan.  As our facility expands, we are working to reduce our impact on the environment and simultaneously increase our positive contributions to the community.  We have adopted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Aichi Biodiversity Targets.  Some of the larger initiatives we aim to achieve by 2030 are an average waste diversion rate from the landfill of 90 percent, a carbon neutral airport, reduced water use per passenger by 25 percent, and completing restoration of ḰELSET and TenTen Creeks on YYJ lands, where efforts to date have seen the return of coho salmon which were last seen in the 1950s.

I am also intrigued about the evolution of the airport over the next 20 years with advances in driverless technology, the growth of alternative fuel products, the future electrification of larger aircraft as well as the growth of advanced urban air mobility (vertical take-off-and-landing aircraft) and how all of these emerging trends will shape the ultimate design of our airport.

I also look forward to the growth in our region when ultimately, we reduce our dependency on connecting through large airport hubs such as Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Seattle to see increased non-stop service to more markets.

What’s the one thing about your organization you really want people to know that they probably don’t know?

The airport property itself is approximately 1,200 acres. In addition to the aerodrome operations, VAA leases to over 60 tenants around the property. The tenants include diverse businesses such as Viking (aircraft manufacturing), Sobeys (grocery distribution), Titan Boats (marine vessel manufacturing), Amazon (last-mile distribution centre), Nicholson (forestry equipment), and Scott Plastics (makers of fishing, marine and firefighting products to name a few). 

It is an eclectic mix of businesses and the largest manufacturing sector on Vancouver Island.

What challenges are you most invested in helping our community overcome and why?

Accessibility is a key issue and something many of us take for granted if we do not have a disability.  Four years ago, we set out to improve accessibility at our airport.  We added a pet relief area post security aimed for individuals with guide dogs, added tactile markings on signage, built an accessible washroom in partnership with Changing Places equipped with a hoist and an adult sized change table, implemented assisted listening technology, installed versatile seating options and accessible interior ramps as well as a number of other initiatives.

We were pleased to be one of the first airports in the country to achieve Gold Accessibility Certification from the Rick Hansen Foundation. The recognition is based on a national rating system that measures accessibility through the adoption of universal design principles. 

This achievement is the result of more than a year of work by our team to evolve the airport to this level of certification.  Our commitment remains to provide all travellers with an airport experience that is easy, comfortable and safe. 

What lessons have most profoundly impacted you since the pandemic sent shockwaves through our community and economy?

In any planning scenario prior to the pandemic, I would not have forecast a worst-case scenario to be anything greater than a 25 percent downturn in business.  At the outbreak of the pandemic, our business decreased by 98 percent.  That is a stunning number.  Airport operations have a high degree of fixed costs, for example, whether we have one flight per day or 100 flights, YYJ still requires a team of firefighters and security personnel mandated by federal regulations.  

We were also not in a position to simply shut down, as we recognized the importance of the continued movement of essential goods and services, the provision for medivac flights and to providing flight training for future pilots.  

While we never prepared for a 98 percent downturn, fortunately we have always taken a fiscally conservative approach to our business which is highly capital intensive. We were debt free at the outset of the pandemic, which gave us a degree of freedom in addressing our financial concerns. Although we significantly cut costs, we couldn’t cut them by 98 percent.  

Very early on, we made a conscious decision that lay offs would be the very last resort once all other cost containment initiatives had been exhausted. While many airports in the country were reducing staff sizes by 15 to 25 percent, we held firm believing we would get through this and emerge a better organization. I would do it all over again exactly the same way.

When you envision the South Island region in 2040, what will have changed?  What does our future look like?

The future looks bright, and my hope is that opportunities for young skilled workers will continue to grow. I grew up in Victoria but left at age 18 for university and a career that did not bring me back here until some 20 years later. My children were raised here but also left for university and are now both working in larger Canadian metropolitan centres.  

I envision a time when those 22-year-olds return home upon graduation to begin their careers and ultimately raise their families here. While none of us know what the future holds, we can collectively do our best to shape it as positively as we want to.