Saskatoon’s John G. Diefenbaker International Airport, also dubbed SKYXE (Sky-ex-ee), has seen many changes in the last several years.
The parking area has undergone a $15-million renovation, and is nearly complete. Four years ago, the terminal saw a significant expansion. A new baggage handling system is now being added. A large new restaurant now sits in the middle of the terminal’s main floor, adding to the food and beverage options.
The overseer of the many projects, and perhaps SKYXE’s primary cheerleader, is Stephen Maybury, president and CEO of the Saskatoon Airport Authority (SAA). For the last six and a half years, he has been leading the charge for modernization and upgrading, all with an eye on serving the airport’s many customers and keeping the growth manageable.
Indeed, last year, a record 1.52 million people passed through the airport despite a relatively flat economy. He doesn’t take credit for that.
“We correlate very closely to the GDP,” said Maybury in an interview. “That’s how we forecast. We don’t have a whole lot of control in terms of the number of passengers.”
Flying is related to discretionary income or business budgets, he noted; and he keeps a close eye on demand when making the airport’s own economic decisions.
“Certainly we’ve seen a very resilient passenger demand. Demand has been flattened; we did see some negative growth in 2015. We have a really interesting capacity demand formula; we don’t overbuild,
so we incrementally build the capacity in for the demand.
“If we’re going to do an expansion, we don’t build out for 20 years. We do that so our fees stay low so our airlines have low-cost operations here.”
Maybury’s career began with an “utter passion and pride for aviation,” first as a pilot. He then achieved a master’s in engineering at the University of Toronto, and was quickly employed at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, where he worked for just under seven years.
There were 525 employees in his division, at the largest airport in Canada with over 30 million passengers annually.
“My focus, my job, was to manage budget and resources — the money and the people — for that division. That really allowed me to learn in a very diverse way the many different aspects of operating facilities and applying that customer service which every single airport looks to do.”
His next stop on the career path was the dramatically smaller Charlottetown, P.E.I. airport, but it gave him the chance, as director of planning and programs, to manage security, business development, marketing and capital programs.
He was there just under two years when he was recruited to become the CEO of Southport Aerospace Centre near Winnipeg, the primary military training base for the Canadian Air Force.
“I really enjoyed working with the Department of National Defence,” he said. “Your customer really became the men and women going through the program.”
He had an enormous “amount of pride to be able to serve and provide them the facilities and training environment where they could be the best they could be in defending this country.”
Two years later, he came to Saskatoon to lead the SAA.
“Whenever I have the opportunity to transform an organization, that’s what really motivates me, and that was the calling here. We really have transformed as an organization. We have become entirely guest-centric. To do that you need to collaborate very well with the airlines and the various entities that work here at the airport.”
With 42 employees, the SAA has about three per cent of the 1,460 airport workers under its umbrella, so collaboration is crucial to a smooth operation, he said.
“We measure 34 metrics and they are surveyed quarterly, so we have thousands and thousands of points of data. We know exactly what our customers want and what they value the most. We’ve had some great success there.”
He noted that SKYXE won best airport (in its category) for service quality in North America in 2016, and the Saskatchewan Tourism Award of Excellence, among other awards.
Which brings him to the parking project, about 97 per cent complete. He knows and admits the airport’s biggest weakness was parking, and the options have been expanded considerably.
Now, there is a discount option with jetSet — a remote lot with a shuttle for extended stay parking, in addition to long-term and short-term spots nearer the terminal. There’s a cellphone lot for people waiting to pick up arriving travellers.
Also new is the premium ValetXE service, where you can pull up in the commercial traffic lane, drop your car at the curb, walk in and give them the key.
“It really is the most seamless product you could have at an airport. It’s doing quite well, actually.”
Ground transportation also includes hotel shuttles, limousines and taxis; and the SAA is looking at bringing on ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft.
“We’re very excited to hopefully bring that on in the near future,” Maybury said. “From an airport perspective, any increase in the modes of access from a ground transport perspective is something we support. We want as many options as possible.”
Inside the terminal, the biggest project underway is the departure hall, where a new baggage system is going in to offer more capacity; it should be ready in July. In addition, the “front of the house” will have more technology to accommodate self-serve programs and automated bag drops, likely by the end of the year.
“If you’re a frequent traveller, you would essentially have no interaction whatsoever with the agent when you’re checking a bag,” he said. “It’s automatically checked for weight and then just disappears. It offers us ultimate processing so we don’t have to expand the building — again to keep costs low . . . and not impact our airline partners.”
Maybury has spoken publicly about the security screening managed by CANSA, which has come under fire for long lineups. The parties are working hard to resolve the issue, and progress is being made.
“There’s a continuous partnership, so there’s always a discussion going. We try to facilitate those discussions by giving them the passenger loading so they can resource their lanes appropriately. Obviously one of the key things we do is facilitate the movement of passengers and goods through the building.
“We consolidate the information around when the schedules of the flights are, and work hard with the guests to ensure they get here early enough, so we’re able to manage that program better.
“The metrics are tracking quite well. That said, we are a little unique here in the fact we’re a ‘head start’ airport. We have about 13 flights that go out within about two hours in the morning. It’s very, very busy in the morning.”
Next up will be rehabilitating a runway, and over the next couple of years, the airport will need to add more aircraft parking.
Another ongoing airport conversation in Saskatoon has long been about connectivity — getting places without too many stops. Maybury says connectivity is good out of Saskatoon, although people have actually asked him to bring in non-stop flights to London, England, or China.
“The reality of that, putting in that size of aircraft into our small catchment area, it’s not happening for years and years and years,” he said.
“What we hear right now is what we really need is one-stop destinations. (People say) get me to a hub that has the best connections around the globe . . . and I’m happy. That’s aligned with airline strategies as well. There’s very much a hub and spoke corporate strategy for airlines.
“I’ve seen the community be incredibly realistic about that perspective. The education and awareness the community has is a benefit to us.
“We are very privileged. We have very strong connectivity across the country. Absolutely Delta, Air Canada and WestJet — and all the airlines that serve here — are extremely important partners for the community.”
When asked what he does in his personal time, Maybury says there’s not much to say. Work-life balance is not all that easy to achieve when you run an airport. He runs to stay fit and spends time with his two sons, aged 14 and 16, who are intensely into cross-fit training.
“We are 24/7 in terms of operations,” he said of SKYXE, “and you always need to be ready to respond.”