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The 1,300 km commute (Part 3: Getting there)

WestJet is ramping up the frequency of its flight services to Fort McMurray in response to the growing number of commuters from the Okanagan working in the Alberta oil sands resource development. - Capital News File Photo
WestJet is ramping up the frequency of its flight services to Fort McMurray in response to the growing number of commuters from the Okanagan working in the Alberta oil sands resource development.
— image credit: Capital News File Photo

Starting this May, $146.08 will buy you a direct flight from Kelowna to Fort McMurray.

The flight is scheduled to depart YLW at 7:30 a.m. and arrive at YMM at 10:23 a.m. (MST).

For about $15 more, a non-stop flight will take off from Fort McMurray at 10:25 p.m. and get you home by 11:27 p.m.

Ferio Pugliese, president of WestJet Encore, says the new connectivity is part of WestJets summer 2014 schedule, which he calls the most extensive schedule the company has launched in a while.

“We know in the valley you have a number of workers who are working up in the oil patch, says Pugliese.

“As we assess demand for that sort of service, we hope we can continue to improve that sort of connectivity.

The route will be serviced by a Canadian-made, 78-seat Bombardier Q400 NextGen turbo-prop plane.

“If youre used to flying on turbo-props, one of the reputations theyve had is for being noisy, says Pugliese.

“This is a next generation aircraft; the Q in Q400 stands for quiet.

When the Capital News first published a story about the new route last month, several readers were quick to share their excitement about the announcement.

“My wish has been answered, wrote Aneka Trumble.

“Yes! commented Lori Haggerty.

But the proposed flight times wont necessarily work with everybodys schedule.

The first part of this series introduced Neil Wells and Pamela Black.

Wells works six days on before getting six days off. His schedule requires him to work three day shifts, followed by three night shifts.

“The (flight) schedule that theyve come up with right now wont really benefit me, says Wells.

“Theyve kind of tailored it to people getting off and flying that night.

Since his final shift ends in the morning, he would have to wait an entire day to access the direct flight back home.

“I can get here by 1:30 p.m. by connecting through Calgary; if I was taking that direct flight I would be waiting until 10:30 p.m. to fly back.

Nevertheless, hes optimistic the new route may open the door to more flight options in the future.

Tony MacKenzie, another commuting worker interviewed for this series, says his company purchases his tickets to and from Fort McMurray through Air Canada. So the new WestJet Encore service may not impact him either.

But Kelowna Mayor Walter Gray, who is also chair of the Airport Advisory Committee, says the new flights will make it easier for many northern Alberta workers living in the Okanagan.

“We know there are almost 30,000 passengers annually who need to travel from Kelowna to the Fort McMurray area, says Gray.

“Now theyre going to be able to do it much more conveniently.

According to Sam Samaddar, airport director at Kelowna International Airport, the new Fort McMurray route, coupled with an additional flight to Edmonton, puts about 100,000 additional seats on the market for 2014.

Last year, YLW accommodated more than 1.5 million passengers.

Although its clear many commuting workers will take advantage of the flights, Samaddar says the new route will also likely appeal to tourists.

“Theres a very prevalent group of people who like to go snowmobiling out of the Fort Mac area. Theres (also) golf and all those other activities that we have here in the summertime, says Samaddar.

“When people are on a seven-day or two-week scheduled day off period, theyll be able to use that time to come to the Kelowna region and take advantage of those activities.

Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission executive director Robert Fine says there is plenty of demand for the new route connecting YLW and YMM.

At last years Fort McMurray home show, several people told him theyd consider living in the Kelowna area if there was direct air service to Fort McMurray.

“We came back from that show about a year ago and startedputting the pitch in for Fort Mac being our number one requested location, says Fine.

“It was great news when it came because it was a fast turnaround from when we started working on this.

The growing number of travellers to and from Fort McMurray may also help support a brand new shuttle service from Kelowna to Osoyoos.

“Were in the final stage of preparing a request for proposals for the beginning of a new bus shuttle service that will run from Osoyoos to the (Kelowna) airport, and daily service from (the airport) going south, says Robert Linttell, transportation chair with the South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce.

“The vision is to create a reliable, cost-effective, well-recognized straight shuttle service that will stop in each of the communities.

He notes the shuttle may be advantageous to visitors from northern Alberta who want to visit the South Okanagan.

It may also give commuting workers in the South Okanagan another option to get to the airport.

“At this time, were hoping the service would start on or before the first of May.

•••

Deciding to commute 1,300 km for work is a decision that, in one way or another, impacts all of us.

Many of those impacts are positive.

Large pay cheques can spill into our local economy; new transportation routes can be created; families can be relieved of financial stress.

But there are less desirable impacts, as well.

Work schedules can keep commuting workers away from emergencies back home; children can struggle with having mom or dad away for weeks or even months at a time; distance can pick away at the fabric of relationships.

But, for about 5,000 locals, the 1,300 km commute is lifewhether or not they want it to be.

wpaterson@kelownacapnews.com

Twitter: @PatersonWade

Other stories in the series:

Part 1: The people

Part 2: The community

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