The air traffic control tower at Yellowknife Airport. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A plan that maps out the future of Yellowknife’s airport “is in the final stages” before being made public, the NWT’s infrastructure minister says.
The master plan for Yellowknife Airport is expected to guide how the airport might expand in future and how the services it offers evolve over time.
In the NWT legislature this week, infrastructure minister Diane Archie said a fund for capital improvements at the airport currently holds just over $10 million in cash that will be used for upgrades to security and an expansion of the airport lounge.
Beyond that, it’s not yet clear what firm commitments to upgrades – if any – the master plan will hold.
Last year, presenting to Yellowknife city councillors, Department of Infrastructure staff said the master plan would set out a proposal for a significant expansion of the airport, but that expansion would only be triggered if passenger and air traffic numbers grow to warrant it.
At the time, the territorial government was contemplating either a new terminal east of the airport’s main runway, accessed via Old Airport Road, or one on the west side of the runway, accessed via Deh Cho Boulevard.
Any decision to actually build that new terminal would be years away, not least because the project could cost $300 million to $600 million, money the territory does not currently possess.
The existing terminal is 56 years old and was approaching the limits of its capacity before the Covid-19 pandemic reduced air travel into and out of Yellowknife.
The master plan is also expected to touch on issues like the way in which the cultures of Indigenous peoples are represented at the airport.
For example, the stuffed polar bear that presently greets arriving travellers in baggage reclaim – while something of an Instagram icon, appearing in many selfies – is disliked by members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, who do not feel the bear (no polar bears exist anywhere near Yellowknife) is an appropriate welcome to the community.
“They should put that polar bear in a box and give it a proper burial,” Ndilǫ Chief Fred Sangris said last year, explaining the fact the animals on display are not native to the southern part of the territory is only a secondary concern.
“That’s really disrespectful to Indigenous people, to display animals that way.”
Chief Sangris said his community has been writing to the airport for more than 10 years, seeking to have the display replaced.
At the time, the Department of Infrastructure told Cabin Radio future airport improvement plans – either the master plan itself, or derivatives – will focus on “better representing the diversity in our regions” and “could include potential actions regarding the location of the polar bear at the Yellowknife Airport terminal.”
In the legislature this week, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said some of the $10 million in the current fund needs to be spent in a hurry.
“People have been paying airport improvement fees for a long time without seeing a lot of progress,” he said.
“You can’t even get a cup of coffee, apparently, on the air side of the terminal at 6 o’clock in the morning. When are we going to start spending this money and get some improvements going?”
“The YZF master plan is in the final stages,” Archie said, using the three-letter code used to identify Yellowknife Airport.
“The regional office is working with the contractor finalizing some of the data, and we’re hoping to update standing committee perhaps in the spring.”