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Quebec City International Airport: servicing tourism and its critical regional support roles

Quebec City Jean Lesage International Airport (hereafter QCIA) serves the Quebec City city-region of Quebec – the province’s second largest after Montreal. Situated in a highly populated area with a significant economic base and well visited by tourists it nonetheless is considerably smaller than comparable airports in Canada, such as Ottawa’s Macdonald-Cartier International Airport (although that airport serves the capital city).

But QCIA does have a very important regional role, helping to support small communities in the northern, Inuit regions of the province. What is more, it is building with a long-term future in mind that will take it to over two million passengers annually by 2020, and its vision is to be one of Canada’s best airports.

This report examines QCIA by way of several sets of metrics; it looks at the airports that are rivals to it, at its construction activities and at its ownership in the light of possible moves to impose privatisation on Canada’s airports.

Political and economic background

Quebec is the second most populous (c. 8.2 million, at 1Q2016) province in Canada after Ontario, and the only one to have a predominantly French-speaking population, and French is the sole official language for the province. It is also the largest province by area.

Quebec is bordered nationally and internationally by the Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador provinces of Canada, and by the US states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.

Most of the province’s inhabitants live in urban areas near the Saint Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City – the provincial capital. The Nord-du-Québéc region, occupying the northern half of the province, is sparsely populated. 

Provincial politics have dominated Quebec for decades. The Parti Québécois governments have twice held referenda on sovereignty, in 1980 and 1995. In both cases the vote was to remain part of Canada, but the second referendum was a very closely run thing. Enthusiasm for independence has abated since the Canadian House of Commons passed a symbolic motion in 2006 which recognised the Québécois as 'a nation within a United Canada’, and since the outcome of worrying election incidents.

Economically Canada is similar to the US, with a market-oriented economic system and model of production, a high-tech industrial society, and high living standards. Moreover, Canada's major banks emerged from the financial crisis of 2008-09 among the strongest in the world, owing to the early intervention by the Bank of Canada and the financial sector’s tradition of conservative lending practices and strong capitalisation.

The country's petroleum sector has been rapidly expanding because the province of Alberta’s oil sands have significantly boosted Canada’s oil reserves, albeit slowed as the oil price slump had its effects. Canada now ranks third in the world in proven oil reserves behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and is the world’s fifth largest oil producer.

However, this has had the effect of shifting economic emphasis westwards away from Montreal and Toronto towards cities such as Calgary, in Alberta. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Toronto’s financial district should be shifted to Calgary.

At the same time, during the last two decades there have been instances of heavy job losses in long-established manufacturing enterprises in the east. Production has shifted to cheaper locations such as Mexico, which along with Canada and the US is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) trading bloc. The most recent instance was in 2008, when the economy dropped into a sharp recession in the final months; subsequently in 2009 the national government in Ottawa posted its first fiscal deficit after 12 years of surplus.

Nevertheless, Quebec has natural resources of its own and they have been the mainstay of the local economy.

Now they are joined by aerospace, ICT, the pharmaceutical industry and biotechnology, ensuring that for the moment Quebec remains second only to Ontario in terms of economic output.

Quebec City is the country’s eleventh largest city and a centre for government

Quebec City has a population of over 540,000 and a metropolitan region population of over 800,000, making it Canada's eleventh largest city and Quebec's second largest city after Montreal.

Many jobs in Quebec City are dedicated to public administration (as the provincial capital the government is the largest employer of all), security and defence, services, commerce, transport and tourism. There is a small manufacturing sector accounting for 12.7% of employment (2015), there are several prominent national and international corporations in the financial sector, and numerous firms in the computer games industry.

Tourists are attracted by the fact that ‘Old Quebec’ is a UNESCO World Heritage site – the only walled city in the Americas north of Mexico and in many historical respects similar to European cities. Around 25,000 people work in jobs connected to tourism and 4.7 million visits (for business, leisure and other reasons) were made to the city in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are published – mostly from the province of Quebec itself. Otherwise, 8.7% were from the rest of Canada, 8.9% were from the US and 9.3% from other countries.

The chart below lays out country tourism to Canada as a whole in 2015.

Canadian visitor market by origin country, 2015

Visitor numbers to Canada rose from 16.6 million to 17.8 million between 2013 and 2015, at a compound growth rate of 7%. In 2016 many more US citizens are reported to be visiting Canada because of fears of terrorism in Europe.

QCIA mainly competes with Montreal’s Trudeau airport - but US airports also compete

Owing to Canada’s vast size and its position towards the more thinly populated southwest of the country, the only airport that QCIA can be said to be in true competition with is Montreal’s Pierre Trudeau International airport; even though that airport itself is 250 km (156 miles) away by road. As mentioned earlier, most of the province’s population lives in or between the two city-regions.

However, two other airports are considered here. Firstly, Plattsburgh in the northern part of New York State and just 60 miles from Montreal. Plattsburgh is one several airports across northern USA and close to the Canadian border which have been taking traffic from Canadian airports for years, since fares are often cheaper. 85% of its passengers come from Quebec though most of them are from Montreal. It could be argued that if Montreal is a competitor to QCIA then Plattsburgh is also, as it is not much more distant from Quebec and benefits from its closeness to the border.

See the related report http://centreforaviation.com/insights/analysis/norwegian-air-seeks-trans-atlantic-flights-from-low-fee-us-airports-some-viable-options-248478).

Secondly, Ottawa International Airport, which is bigger than Quebec City’s airport – partly because Ottawa is the nation’s capital, but is also broadly similar in its distance from Montreal. The profiles of the Ottawa and Plattsburgh airports are quite different.

The long-established international airport at Bangor, Maine, USA is not included, however, as it is less easy to reach by road from this part of Canada.

Map of the area encompassing Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa and Plattsburgh, USA 

QCIA has a small role in the wider airports system, but an important local one  

The table below compares these airports. All are mainly O&D airports.

Rankings of peer airports by assorted metrics (1):  

Airport/metric world ranking

ASKs

Seats

Frequencies

Cargo payload

Pax 2015 (unless stated) (million)

City population (million)

 

QCIA

787

665

424

792

1.6

0.8

Montreal

87

125

85

114

15.5

4.1

Ottawa

312

294

215

272

4.7

1.2 *1

Plattsburgh

1438

1862

2218

2217

n/k (est. 0.15)

0.003

The table suggests that QCIA plays a relatively minor role in the wider airports system to the east of Toronto through Montreal and to its location. However, that does not detract from its very important local and sub-regional role supporting business and tourism.

The table below summarises QCIA’s route network; the table below that compares QCIA with its peer group in network terms.

QCIA Network Summary (at 06-Jun-2016)

Total Airlines

11

    Domestic only

8

    International

3

Total nonstop passenger destinations

13

    Domestic

10

    Africa

0

    Asia Pacific

0

    Europe

0

    Latin America

0

    Middle East

0

    North America

3

Total nonstop freight destinations

0

    Domestic

0

    Africa

0

    Asia Pacific

0

    Europe

0

    Latin America

0

    Middle East

0

    North America

0

Rankings by assorted metrics (2):  

Airport

Total airlines

Pax traffic 2015 (unless stated) (million)

Airline to pax ratio

International airlines

nonstop passenger destinations

nonstop freight destinations

 

QCIA

11

1.6

0.14

3

13

0

Montreal

30

15.5

0.51

25

106

1

Ottawa

11

4.7

0.42

5

33

2

Plattsburgh

3

n/k (est 0.15)

0.05

0

5

0

This table confirms the influence of Montreal’s Pierre Trudeau International Airport regionally, and particularly as expressed by nonstop passenger destinations.

Again, QCIA has a minor role regionally but the lack of nonstop freight destinations from Montreal suggests that it could develop a regional freight role. At 2743m one of the runways is capable of handling long haul cargo aircraft (and there is a single long haul passenger service, seasonally to Paris).

On the basis of these tables Plattsburgh Airport does not appear to be making much of an impact, but figures alone are not always a reliable guide. Two of the three airlines there are ULCCs, with a collective 83% of capacity that reaches up over the border into Montreal and beyond.

The ‘Airline to Pax ratio’ has the second lowest score (0.14) after Plattsburgh, which is statistically an outlier, with only three airlines operating there and a very low local population. A low score indicates a high degree of competition among airlines for the size of the local population.

Seat capacity growing then levelling out

Seat capacity has demonstrated a propensity to grow quite quickly and then to remain static over the course of the past four years.

QCIA, seats capacity year-on-year, system-wide

Traffic growth followed a similar pattern 2013-2015

Passenger traffic also grew between 2012 and 2014, but then stalled in 2015.

QCIA annual passenger numbers

Air Canada is by far the largest airline represented, marking out QCIA as a full service, business-oriented airport

Air Canada has more than the lion’s share of seat capacity at QCIA, with slightly over two thirds of it. No other airline has more than 6.5% and that airline is an LCC (WestJet) Otherwise, there are hardly any other LCCs (see also the FSC/LCC chart and comparative table below). QCIA is a destination for Porter Airlines, based at Toronto City airport, and it has just 3% of capacity.

QCIA capacity seats, per week, system, all airlines, 30-May-2016 to 05-Jun-2016

Route network concentrates on eastern and northern Canada

The airport’s current route network is shown here. Apart from domestic Canadian services – mainly north and eastwards, although there are flights to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto - there is only one other country that features year-round as a destination: the United States (New York, with seasonal service to Philadelphia).

These services are supplemented with a large seasonal programme by Air Transat and Sunwing, in particular, which embrace the southern US, the Caribbean and also Paris (Air Transat) – the longest route from QCIA.

QCIA Route Network

Nonstop connectivity – opportunities to expand on the single European service

The chart below contrasts the peer group airports in terms of nonstop connectivity. One thing that stands out from this chart in comparison with similar ones in previous CAPA profiles for a host of US airports is greater intercontinental nonstop activity. Often it is difficult in a comparative chart to find any US airports with direct services to Asia Pacific, Africa, the Middle East or even Latin America.

In the case of this peer group there is no such difficulty. The regional airport leader, Montreal, has 50 destinations in total in all four parts of the world, only 24 less than its North American total, and there are a further 39 in Europe.

While Ottawa does have two European services, QCIA’s single Paris service, in place for Quebec City’s francophone connections, gives it visibility in the long haul sphere. There may be opportunities to expand on that service to other French cities when the privatisation of Lyon and Nice airports is completed shortly, with private sector management perhaps injecting greater vigour into route development. And with 122,000 French citizens now living in the UK – 75,000 of them in London alone – there may be opportunities for at least a seasonal service there. Note that a further 15 international airlines operate into QCIA through code shares.

Locally, there may be opportunities to extend the scope of regular North American services and also domestic Canadian ones. US route enhancements should follow from the Mar-2016 announcement that QCIA has been added to the list of Canadian airports offering US border pre-clearance facilities.

Nonstop connectivity values of Quebec City, Montreal Trudeau, Ottawa and Plattsburgh airports for 30-May-2016 to 05-Jun-2016:

Four fifths of capacity is on FSCs

Almost 83% of seat capacity at QCIA is on full service airlines (FSCs), thereby marking it out as heavily business-oriented airport as mentioned above. Regional and commuter airlines account for 10% with the remainder on LCCs.

QCIA capacity seat share by airline type (system), 06-Jun-2016 to 12-Jun-2016

That traffic split is compared here with the airport’s peer-competitors. QCIA has a noticeably high FSC seat ratio, only slightly behind that of Montreal, while Ottawa’s FSC ratio is considerably less. Within Canada, only at Ottawa can LCCs be shown to have made any real breakthrough. The national airline LCC seat capacity share is currently 32.3% for domestic routes and 13.1% for international (an average of 22.7%; almost exactly the same as Ottawa Airport’s ratio).

Comparison of selected airports by airline type – seat capacity, 06-Jun-2016 to 12-Jun-2016  

Airport

% of seats on FSCs

% of seats on LCCs

% of seats on other modes (e.g. regional, charter airlines)

Clarification of previous column

 

QCIA

82.8

7.1

10.1

Regional & Commuter

Montreal

85.4

9.5

5.2

Regional & Commuter

Ottawa

60.0

22.9

17.1

Regional & Commuter

Plattsburgh

-

82.8

17.2

Regional & Commuter

Star Alliance has 71% capacity share

The largest alliance at QCIA is Star Alliance with 70.8% of capacity – courtesy mainly of Air Canada and United. Oneworld and SkyTeam play a very small role by comparison. Unaligned capacity is high, at 21.5%.

QCIA capacity seats share by alliance (system) 06-Jun-2016 to 12-Jun-2016

Business class seating ratio very low

There is one piece of evidence that points away from QCIA being a business-oriented airport despite the level of seating on FSCs and the impact of a big alliance, and that is the low seating ratio for both business class and premium economy; in fact, over 98% of all seats at QCIA are classed as ‘economy’.

A new facility provided by CAPA permits a comparison of the percentage of seats available in different classes (first, business, premium economy and economy) between airports and a worldwide average. The chart below is for the same peer group as before.

Montreal is the only airport of the group to offer any first class seating. QCIA’s business class tally, at 0.5%, is much lower than that at Ottawa (4.4%), though QCIA does have more premium economy seating. Only Plattsburgh has more economy class seating (100%) – as might be expected.

Combined schedule by class of seat - one way weekly departing (airport comparison by seat type) 06-Jun-2016 to 12-Jun-2016

Operations – 1800-1900 is the busiest hour

Looking at seat capacity per hour - arriving and departing – allows a determination of slot patterns to be made.

There is no known curfew in operation at QCIA. Nevertheless, there is no landing or take-off activity between 0100 and 0500 on the selected day here (Monday 06-Jun-2016), and that remains the same for the rest of the week. The distribution of arrivals and departures – as measured by seat capacity within hour blocks - is in the chart below.

The synchronisation of arriving and departing aircraft for this typical day is quite even throughout most of it, except for late evening/early morning and mid afternoon. The heaviest usage of the terminal is made during the hours 1800-1900, and most of it is departing traffic. There is some peak gap space available to fill, but in the morning rather than the evening.

QCIA seats per hour total system, all airlines, all terminals, all origins/destinations, typical day Monday 06-Jun-2016

As the OAG Route Map above suggests, the majority of flight times – 98.6% in fact (as measured by seats by length of flight) – are in the range 0-2 hours, emphasising the North American nature of many operations.

QCIA seats by length of flight (system), 06-Jun-2016 to 12-Jun-2016

The chart below, contrasting flight time with weekly frequencies, presents this information in a different format. Again, the highest level of seat capacity is on flights of up to two hours in duration, and they also have the greatest number of frequencies. The data prompts a bubble overlap at 1.25 hours' flight length with the greatest number of frequencies as well.

QCIA frequencies (system) 06-Jun-2016 to 12-Jun-2016

Cargo – Air Canada is the biggest volume provider by far, but regional airlines are vital

One of the tables above shows that QCIA has quite a low ranking compared with Ottawa’s airport, in terms of cargo tonnage. A lack of nonstop freight flights from Montreal Trudeau airport suggests there might be a reasonable opportunity to develop a cargo operation in Quebec City.

Cargo capacity at QCIA fell by almost 20% between 2013 and 2014, but then stabilised in 2015 at 27.3 million kilos.

Again, Air Canada is the leading capacity provider with 84%, compared with 67% of seats in the passenger segment.

QCIA capacity per week by airline, cargo payload, full system, 06-Jun-2016 to 12-Jun-2016

While its capacity ratio is small, Air Inuit provides an essential lifeline to small towns in Nunavik, the northern third of Quebec province, which is larger than California yet houses only 12,000 people.

QCIA is one of only two primary airports that Air Inuit flies to outside of Nunavik (the other is Montreal Trudeau). There are no road links between Nunavik and southern Quebec. This is perhaps a ‘social’ aspect of airport/airline operations – connecting remote communities - that can be overlooked.

Air Inuit route network

In contrast to these small communities the two largest markets as measured by volume capacity are Montreal Trudeau (currently 121,000 kg per week) and Toronto Pearson (currently 80,000 kg per week) airports.

Terminals and construction – YQB 2018 will deliver capacity for two million ppa

QCIA is a single terminal building.

From 2006 the airport underwent a modernisation procedure designed to increase the terminal's capacity, at a cost of CAD66 million; it was completed in Jun-2008. Most of the cost was financed directly by Aéroport de Québec and the works permitted the airport to handle 1.4 million passengers a year.

It soon became evident, however, that the terminal would reach its design capacity by 2012, and in 2011 planning work began on the second phase of the airport expansion. The terminal building will double in size, at a cost of CAD224.8 million (in 2011, USD205.5 million). The work also includes an expansion of the international facilities, construction work on the runways, taxiways and de-icing pads, as well as enhancements to customer service facilities.

Construction work began in 2015 and was scheduled to be completed by 2017, but the timescale has since slipped and the project is now billed as YQB 2018. There are over a dozen individual construction projects and a number of IT programmes involved. The vision is to develop capacity to serve two million passengers by 2020, and to “join the ranks of the country's 10 busiest airports”.

The aforementioned US border pre-clearance centre will be housed in the expanded international section of the terminal. It is expected to drive economic development in the Greater Quebec City Area and to generate economic spin-offs in the order of CAD75 million per year.

In mid-2015 the pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec announced a CAD53 million (then USD43.1 million) investment in the airport, in the form of a term loan. The funds will be used toward the expansion of the international terminal, and they form part of a private financing of approximately CAD265 million (then USD215.6 million) announced by Aéroport de Québec at that time.

Aerial view of QCIA prior to the commencement of recent construction work

Artist’s impression of extended terminal building

Ownership and privatisation – situation similar to most Canadian airports but changes may be afoot

The ownership of QCIA follows a similar pattern to that of most Canadian airports. The airport has been managed and operated since 2000 by Aéroport de Québec inc., a privately held non-profit and non-share corporation; the airport was transferred from the oversight of Transport Canada.

See the recent CAPA report :

(ttp://centreforaviation.com/insights/analysis/airport-privatisation-in-canada-transport-policy-review-271346 

A recent government review (Pathways: Connecting Canada's Transportation System to the World) analysed whether the country should renounce the system of not-for-profit ownership and management of the largest airports, in favour of some form of privatisation.

The review made recommendations on the prospects for privatisation of Canada’s airports. They include working with airport authorities towards their transformation into for-profit entities and selling the assets of larger airports to them. Similar processes have been followed in the past with the privatisation of Crown corporations like Petro Canada and Air Canada. Alternatively, this could be achieved by selling the airports to another private enterprise.

The review section’s findings on airport privatisation have been supported by some airports but not by others. Aéroport de Québec’s position is not known at this time.

Summary & Conclusions

  • Quebec is a heavily populated province of Canada with much of the population living in, or between, Montreal and Quebec City;
  • It is politically stable but separatist movements could again emerge.
  • While Canada has shifted economically and politically westwards, Quebec City retains a diverse industrial and commercial base and is well visited by tourists; visitor numbers to Canada have increased by 7% (CAGR) over two years.
  • QCIA mainly competes with Montreal’s Pierre Trudeau International Airport. It may also be influenced by the small LCC operations at Plattsburgh Airport in New York State but not to the same degree as is the Montreal airport.
  • QCIA has a more significant local and sub-regional role than a national one. This is evident, for example, in the services it supports to the very isolated and thinly populated Nunavik region of northern Quebec province.
  • There is a good degree of competition among the airports operating at QCIA, for the size of the local population.
  • There appears to be some potential to increase air freight activity at QCIA.
  • Growth in both seat capacity and passenger numbers has been staccato in recent years.
  • Air Canada is the largest passenger airline and cargo airline by seat capacity and cargo volume capacity respectively.
  • The current route network is limited to North America, save for a Paris service, but French and other European services could possibly be added.
  • The addition of QCIA to the US pre-clearance roster should generate additional North American traffic when it becomes operative.
  • 83% of seat capacity at QCIA is on full service airlines (FSCs), marking it out as a business-oriented airport.
  • However, in Southern Quebec the ratio of LCC seats generally is well below the national airline average.
  • The largest alliance at QCIA is Star Alliance, with 71% of capacity. Unaligned capacity is high at 21.5%.
  • The business class seating ratio at QCIA is low in comparison with its peers.
  • QCIA operates 24/7 but there are no flights between 0100 and 0500. There is some peak gap space available to fill, mainly in the morning.
  • Most flights are in the range 0-2 hours, emphasising the North American nature of many operations.
  • A construction programme is under way, now scheduled to be completed in 2018, which will raise capacity to two million ppa by extending the existing terminal building.
  • QCIA is a non-profit and non-share corporation (Aéroport de Québec inc.,) similar to many others in Canada, but a recent government review suggested that such entities might be curtailed in favour of outright privatisation.

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