Geoff Dickson, President & CEO of the Victoria Airport Authority

Geoff Dickson became the president and CEO of the Victoria Airport Authority (VAA) in January, coming over from an executive position at BC Ferries. Leaping from seas to skies was a welcome change for the 51-year-old, given his lifelong love affair with the aviation business.

Born in Nanaimo and raised in Victoria, Dickson combined business school at UBC with an innate love of travel, and parlayed that into a quarter-century-long career in transportation, starting with the old Pacific Western Airlines. At 27, he was their marketing manager for Europe.

“I was on a plane overseas every six weeks,” he recalls. “I was in a lot of airports and that was where I was learning the business.”

Success in the air helped him make a splash at BC Ferries, where he was in charge of marketing and business development for a dozen years, tasked with expanding revenues by providing services the ferries previously lacked. The Seawest business lounges, the

Tsawwassen Quay terminal development, and onboard corporate partnerships with catering and retail were all his decisions.

“We found that when you made changes, people would use discretionary dollars and spend more,” he says. “Even with fewer people travelling on ferries, our onboard revenues doubled.”

It’s a result he’d like to be able to enter into the ledger of Victoria International, while ushering the airport through another phase of heady growth.

{advertisement} “The challenge,” he explains, “is being not completely ahead of the demand curve, but being just ahead of it, so demand doesn’t outstrip your facility.”

Demand is one runway extension away. Once $32 million arrives, that is. And then Canada’s ninth-busiest airport, with just over 1.5 million passengers passing through security each year, will become an airport that’s more than a jumping off point to get you to another airport so you can actually fly to your destination.

With a longer runway and international flights will come an expanded terminal, more parking, more amenities — and more people. Dickson’s already addressed the latter, with BC Transit agreeing to nearly triple the number of bus trips from the city to the airport each day.

“That was one of the real complaints we heard — a lack of public transit to and from the airport. I think we’re rectifying that.”

The new CEO inherits a facility in excellent health, thanks in part to the stewardship of his predecessor, Richard Paquette. The VAA wrapped up 2010 with an operating surplus of $5.2 million on revenues of $22.6 million.

And much of the infrastructure groundwork begun in the past decade has ripened, including the McTavish Road interchange, a 212,000-square-foot hangar being built by the Department of National Defence, and a $31-million distribution centre for Sobeys, the parent company of Thrifty Foods.

You’ve spent almost your entire business career in the transportation industry. Was that something you intended?

I’ve always had a fascination with aviation. A professor at UBC, one of the leading authorities in transportation and consulting, got me really involved in the industry and helped me get placed with Pacific Western Airlines. He wrote a paper for their board of directors on the need for creating a position in business development and marketing, and, funnily enough, that led me to being hired by BC Ferries in that position.

You had a pretty good gig going as VP of marketing and business development with BC Ferries. Why did you leave?

I’m happy to be back in the aviation business. It’s my true passion. At BC Ferries I was able to take the fleet and make so much change to it. To me, the work was done.

What can you do at the airport that you found worked at BC Ferries?

It is all about the customer experience. It’s something very important to us. We want to be the best
at it.

And if they’re happy, according to a study by J.D. Power & Associates, they spend more money. They found that passengers reporting a high level of satisfaction with an airport increased their retail spending by 45 per cent.

Yes, I’ve seen that. Last year, this airport was voted the best small airport for customer service by Airport Revenue News. And of 154 airports surveyed worldwide, Victoria ranked 18th overall.

What is the main complaint you hear from travellers using Victoria’s airport?

The single biggest issue is getting more non-stop flights to more destinations. The onus is on the CEO to promote airlines coming here. It’s incumbent on airports to raise the opportunity for the airlines, and say to them, “Here’s an untapped opportunity for you. How can we have that together?” You don’t want to assume that they do have that knowledge. We’re looking at markets like Los Angeles and sunspots like Phoenix, Cabo San Lucas, and Palm Springs.

How important is it to extend the runway?

The runway is a game changer. At 7,000 feet, our runway now is one of the shorter runways of Canada’s major airports. It means you’re restricted to, I’ll call it, ‘North America flying.’ We can take it to 8,400 feet and that would allow us to land a 767-300 series and that opens up the European market for you, primarily England.

The runway extension plan is shovel ready, but I’d suspect you’ll have trouble securing funding from Ottawa now that Conservative Gary Lunn is no longer the MP.

It’s just one of those things. Politics is politics. Having a clear and concise business case and being patient is the main thing.

How long can you be patient?

It will always be there. We have a design ready and we can build our business plans accordingly. Several big airport runway extensions were announced by the feds in the last six months. The reason they were successful, I’m told, is that there was provincial support.

Do you expect any opposition from people living around the airport when you do lengthen the runway?

I wouldn’t pretend support for it is unanimous, but we already have 150,000-odd movements a year and all of a sudden you’re talking another 100 or 200. That’s not much. Three flights a week for Europe versus the other 50 flights that leave each day.

In 2006, there were rumours that developers had approached the airport to build a hotel, shopping, and even a casino. Then the plan became a retail village with a residential component. What happened with that?

In terms of the hotel, that’s identified in our master plan. It’s something we’d be looking at in the 10- to 15-year horizon.

There’s a lot of talk about air travel pricing itself out of the market as oil prices climb. What’s your take on the future of air travel?

The airlines are looking at this closely. The big discussion right now is what will the price of oil be. Do you change the whole design of the aircraft? There really aren’t a lot of people pointing toward a shrinking market. It will shift, but the market, overall, will grow.