Sault Ste Marie Airport
Landing in the heart of a region known for adventure
Weathering All Storms to Maintain Canada’s Only Not-for-Profit Airport, Sault Ste Marie Airport takes flight
Billed as Canada’s Adventure Town, Sault Ste Marie offers a sense of unique charm with the excitement of adventure added in. Imagine flying in over the myriad of colors dotting the fall landscape – hills and mountains covered with color give way to deep reflective lakes, all the while on the shores of the Great Lakes and in the middle of, quite literally, everything.
“Sault Ste. Marie is actually at the heart of the Great Lakes, the heart of Ontario, and some will argue we’re also at the heart of Canada,” says Terry Bos, President, and CEO of Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corporation.
“There’s a lot of natural beauty in the area and I think that’s the main attraction, whether it be fishing on the big lakes or heading up north and fishing on the inland lakes. There’s a lot of good hunting up to the north as well. In the wintertime, we have a large ski hill, Searchmont Resort which brings a lot of people in for the ski season. We also have a lot of cross-country ski trails.”
“We have a long snow machine trail that ties in and runs throughout the North, and in the summertime, we have now gotten into mountain biking and the city’s been working on building trails for that. We have a beautiful boardwalk that runs across the entirety of our downtown area and along the Saint Mary’s River, as well as a hub trail named after our former mayor that’s called the Rowswell Hub Trail which goes around the entire city for 16 kilometers, and you can either bike it or walk it,” Bos describes.
It is no wonder that the tourism slogan is Take the time, live in the moment, find yourself.
The Canadian government opened the airport in 1961 and operated it until 1998 when it handed control over to the newly formed Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corporation. The corporation has since become the only private regional sized not for profit airport.That means there is no alignment with any governmental or municipal entities.
This also means it does not benefit from either government funding or civic tax benefits.
“So, we are very unique,” Bos chimes in, “We have two 6000-foot runways, and we currently have three airlines who fly out of our airport, Air Canada, Porter Airlines, and Bearskin Airlines. In the past, we have also seen seasonal travel to the south with Sunwing. We have two cargo flights a day with FedEx and Skyline.”
“We are home to the water bomber base for Ontario with the Ministry of Natural Resources. We are also fortunate to have Sault College, which is a flight training school here in Sault Ste. Marie and a private flight training school, Sault Academy of Flight.”
“We have a major MRO, maintenance repair operation, with JD Aero and they do a lot of work for many airlines including Horizon, WestJet, and Porter. We also have a second FBO on site, Executive Aviation who does fueling with World Fuels. We redid our main runway in 2001 and we redid our secondary runway in 2021. We have also done three expansions to our terminal to meet our growth since we took over when we were about 140,000 and then went up to about 215,000 passengers.”
Covid had a major effect on air travel everywhere, but it seems Canada is bouncing back, albeit slowly. Before Covid Sault Ste. Marie saw some 210,000 passengers per year and somewhere in the range of 60,000 aircraft movements. Right now, they estimate being back up to about 75 percent of the pre-2020 numbers. A little over 150,000 passengers. This is, however, a far cry from their record low in the 2020-21 season of 20,500 passengers.
“Some of this depends on whether the airlines can ramp up enough to meet the demand,” Bos admits.
“We have taken a hit because the bigger markets are taking up more of the aircraft than there are limited aircraft as well as limited flight crews. So, unfortunately, it’s the regional markets that have had to have reduced flight schedules. We normally go to our summer schedule with Air Canada on May 1st and that didn’t come into effect this year until July 1st and there were still only three daily flights, with Porter running another two.”
All of which circles back to the pilot shortage, and the current shortage across the aeronautic fields. Airports throughout North America seem to be building community engagement and promotion of the industry into their very core understanding of why they exist.
Airports make good cheerleaders for pilots, and Sault Ste Marie is no exception. The Sault College flight program is part of their South College Campus and has operated from the field since 1998. They celebrated, along with the airport, a 25th anniversary this spring. In honor of that SSMADC has created four new scholarships of $2,500 each for first year aviation program students at Sault College. The College has 11 of their aircraft based at the airport.
Most of their activity takes place in the warmer months, but they are also there for winter flying as well. For the general enthusiast, there is also the Sault Academy of Flight, which offers training for the private instead of a commercial pilot license. Given the sport hunting and fishing environment in the area, this can be a popular undertaking. There are between 20 to 25 General Aviation aircraft housed at the airport in T-hangars – which are currently full.
“Our last major upgrade was in the summer of 2021,” says Bos, “because of Covid the government of Canada made a capital assistance program accessible to regional airports, which allowed us to do some much-needed upgrades to our crosswind runway, including resurfacing and runway lights – but those funds were only in place for two years. With the assistance of AVIA NG who carried out the engineering, design, and project management, the project came in on time and within budget, so was a great success.”
“That was a $13 million project that was on the books for almost a decade. We’re still looking to do some work on our terminal to bring some of the front end of the terminal into the current century. I guess you could say we want to give it a facelift. We upgraded the airside ten years ago, but the terminal itself needs to be modernized.”
“We are always looking for ways to expand our GA population and offerings. We are looking at a million-dollar project to redo our car park area next year. One of the final things we have in planning is to move our administrative offices from under the tower on the second floor down to the main area to make us more accessible, a little more public-facing, and allow us to interact more with the passengers. For right now it is trying to get our passenger numbers back up by increasing the services, and the comfort of the services we offer. Then we will be in a better position to move forward,” Bos outlines for us.
Sault Ste Marie Airport is also the home base for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources water bombing fleet. They spend the winter in the airport getting all their maintenance and servicing done, and then during the fire season, they are often based out of other airports further north.
Every couple of weeks they bring a plane in to switch crews or for some repairs – even though the local area has been spared during this fire season, it has still made up a significant amount of airport operations.
“We have been working with Northstar Consulting when it comes to placing our airport and promoting it to customers,” Bos adds.
“They do a lot of our economic development work. As a not-for-profit, we have a lot fewer partnerships than some other airports, but we do try to treat our clients and tenants, even our passengers, as if they were family. I think that goes a long way to creating an environment of growth where people want to help enable one another. We just had a restaurant and a barber shop both open at the terminal, Hogan’s Homestead will be providing food services, and I think it is unique to have our own barber shop on the premises.”
“I think, unfortunately, at this point, we’re still in survival and recovery mode,” he concludes.
“We did lose a lot of customers for quite a period and we’re just following the market to see where that recovery is. So obviously we’re keeping in touch with our airline partners to see if we can attract additional aircraft back to Sault Ste. Marie, whether that be our existing airlines with some return flights coming back, or perhaps attracting new airlines.”
Anticipating what is needed, he adds, “We obviously will be working with Sunwing to hopefully be able to bring them back this winter. We had some great success with them at the end of last winter. We want to get our passenger levels back up to where they were and then we can start working on our capital and expansion plans once we are on stable footing.”
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AT A GLANCE
Sault Ste Marie Airport
WHAT: A commercial and general aviation airport at the heart of the Great Lakes, Canada
WHERE: Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Canada