Edmonton’s New First Impression

About six years ago I travelled to Los Angeles for the Portable Media Expo. We had a great time at the event and got to spend a little bit of time afterward doing some sightseeing. I don’t remember much of that, to be honest, but there is one experience that has always stuck with me: my first impression upon arriving at LAX. Having never been to Los Angeles before, the picture I had in my head of the city and everything in it was modern and glamorous. I mean, it’s a famous city and is home to Hollywood, right? That picture applied to LAX itself too, especially considering its iconic airport code. The reality was much different, however. The part of the airport that we experienced seemed small, old, unattractive, and dirty. It certainly wasn’t a positive first impression.

For a long time, I think you could say the same about Edmonton’s airport. Things got a little better with the last expansion, but I still find that the first impression leaves much to be desired. You’ve probably heard the saying that “first impressions are lasting impressions” and I think that’s particularly true when you visit a new city. Even if a visitor makes it to the Art Gallery of Alberta, the river valley, or any of the other memorable attractions that Edmonton has to offer, it can be incredibly difficult to get over a negative first impression at the airport, especially considering you have to go through the facility again to leave.

That’s one of the reasons that I am particularly excited about Expansion 2012. It will change visitors’ first impressions upon arriving in Edmonton for the better.

When you fly through an airport like Heathrow in London, you rarely have to wait for your bags after arriving. That’s because it takes so long to walk from the gate to the baggage carousel – the airport is just so big! In Edmonton, you almost always arrive at the baggage carousel before your bags do. That frustrates travellers and contributes to the poor first impression. With Expansion 2012, the walk in from the gate will take longer, and that should mean less waiting around for your bags.

Expansion 2012

But don’t worry, chances are you won’t even notice that the walk takes longer. That’s due in part to the moving walkways that have been installed, but more importantly it is because of Flightpath, a digital light and sound system created by Electroland (of Los Angeles, wouldn’t you know it). The interactive installation features motion sensors that pick up movement and activate the sound and LED lights. It’s kind of hard to describe, so here it is in action:

At the end of the Interstitial Corridor is the new entrance, with Canada Customs on the main level (opening this summer) and the new International/Domestic Lounge on the second level (opening this fall). It’s big, open, bright, and inviting – everything our current entrance is not. Prominently featured is The Living Wall, a two-storey green wall that will serve double duty as an art piece and an air filtration system. Coming this summer is The Raven: Bringer of Light, a ceiling-hung stainless steel and embossed acrylic sculpture created by Michael Hayden that is 30 feet by 18 feet and weighs 3500 pounds. It sounds impressive, and I can’t wait to see it.

Expansion 2012

Airports need to be functional first and foremost, but they can’t stop there. A city’s airport plays a significant role in shaping a visitor’s opinions, and as such needs to deliver an experience that is both relaxing and memorable. Expansion 2012 no doubt makes the Edmonton International Airport more functional, but it also delivers a much improved first impression for visitors. That’s ultimately good for both EIA and for Edmonton.

You can check out a few more photos in my Expansion 2012 photoset.

Photo Tour of Apron 2 at the Edmonton International Airport

Last week I had the opportunity (with a few other local bloggers) to tour the General Aviation Services at the Edmonton International Airport (EIA). As with the ECCA tour, Traci Bednard, VP of Communications at Edmonton Airports, was our guide. We ran into some challenges getting a vehicle to take us to Apron 2, but we eventually made it. Here’s what we saw.

EIA General Aviation Tour

This is what most people think of when they think about EIA. The number of passengers has grown significantly since scheduled service was consolidated at EIA in 1996. EIA now handles roughly 6 million passengers each year, and is in the midst of major expansion, known as Expansion 2012.

EIA General Aviation Tour

Apron 2, on the north side of the airport near by runway 02/20, is where a significant amount of general aviation (GA) activity takes place. Approximately 380,000 landed seats are served through Apron 2 each year. Edmonton Airports has committed just under $20 million for GA facilities & support at EIA this year.

EIA General Aviation Tour

There are currently two Fixed Base Operators (FBO) at Apron 2 – Executive Flight Centre and Shell Aerocentre (Shell also operates at ECCA). FBOs provide a variety of services, such as aircraft maintenance, fueling, passenger services, cargo services, etc. They operate hangars, passenger lounges, executive lounges, and customer parking. Shuttle services are available to/from the main terminal, enabling passengers to connect with scheduled service.

EIA General Aviation Tour

We got to see one of the Executive Flight Centre’s facilities. The VIP lounge pictured above serves the Edmonton Oilers, Edmonton Eskimos, and many others. One of the most recent VIPs to use it was Kevin Costner. Oilers players are provided with valet service, so they can drive up and get on the plane (and when they return, their vehicles are ready to go). The Executive Flight Centre will honor almost any request, including catering, ground transportation, etc. The Executive Flight Centre also provides ample hangar space, and can even accommodate a Global Express.

EIA General Aviation Tour

A number of GA charter companies operate at Apron 2, including Alta Flights, Flight Tech Aviation, North Cariboo Air, and Sunwest Aviation. Other users include the military, and private operators such as Cathton Aviation.

EIA General Aviation Tour

EIA is the primary airport serving the north. At EIA, 70% of northern departures are scheduled service, 18% are non-scheduled, and 12% provide oil sands related crew changes. As many as 1200 CNRL Horizon workers per day pass through Apron 2. Other northern projects that rely on EIA include the Mackenzie Gas Project, Diavik Diamond Mines, and Athabasca Oil Sands.

EIA General Aviation Tour

EIA could easily accommodate the GA activity that currently takes place at ECCA. There are many large hangars sitting empty, such as the old Spar hangar, pictured above. It offers 120,000 square feet of hangar space, with an additional 35,000 square feet of office space attached. Thanks to recent investments that Edmonton Airports has made at Apron 2, there is also plenty of space available for customers who want something different to custom-build.

Thanks to Traci and Edmonton Airports for the tour. You can see the rest of my photos here.

Free Wireless Internet Lands at the Edmonton International Airport

Since 2004, the Edmonton International Airport has offered wireless Internet access, for a fee. As at many other airports, it was operated by Boingo. Unless you were already a Boingo subscriber, it just wasn’t worth it to get connected for an hour or two, and many people griped (myself included) about the lack of free wi-fi at the airport, especially as other airports increasingly offered it. Starting today, passengers have one less thing to complain about: EIA now offers free wi-fi access throughout the entire airport!

I wanted to learn more about the service and how it came to be, so I sat down with Reagan Winchester, EIA’s Director of IT, to find out. He was quite excited about the free wi-fi, even though it was a challenging project to implement. We started with some background.

It turns out that there wasn’t any broadband Internet access at EIA until Reagan’s team brought in two very large connections from Shaw and Telus. Once those were in place, EIA built a mini DSL network, and started selling access to its tenants in order to recoup the costs (one of its customers was, of course, Boingo). That worked, but everyone still managed their own hardware and services. Over time, it became clear that the many separate networks that existed at EIA (security, flight information, etc) would be better served if they were integrated, running off the same infrastructure, without each tenant having to worry about hardware and maintenance. So EIA started building out a Campus Area Network. Importantly, wi-fi was a key component of the network. With that infrastructure in place, the primary technical hurdle to offering free Internet access went away.

Another hurdle was convincing management that EIA should be offering something for free that previously they had been charging for. Under the deal with Boingo (which expired in June 2009), EIA made only a little bit of money. Boingo installed the access points and managed everything, so they kept most of the revenue. Now with its own wireless access in place, EIA had a few options: offer its own paid wireless, offer ad supported wireless, or offer completely free wireless. One of the tools they used to make that decision was the Airport Service Quality survey results. If you look at ASQ scores, Canadian airports with free wi-fi (like Vancouver) are in the top ten in North America with an average score of 3.61/4, whereas airports with paid wi-fi are in the 20-30 range with an average score of 3.06/4. Of all the different categories that airports are scored on, EIA performed worst compared to others in wi-fi category. So that made it clear that by offering free wi-fi, EIA could improve its ASQ score quite a bit. Further investigation revealed that airports with ad supported wi-fi scored 3.59/4, so the ability to have a little bit of cost recovery and still improve ASQ scores meant that in the end, EIA decided to go with ad supported wi-fi.

The new wireless network itself is managed by EIA, with the gateway and public facing stuff being provided by Boldstreet (the same company that Starbucks and Second Cup use at their locations). Boingo has at least 36 Cisco Aironet access points at EIA, but they’re old and only support 802.11b, so they’re pretty slow (they’ll remain accessible until August 31, 2010). EIA is using Meru access points (with Foundry hardware on the wired side), which support 802.11 a/b/g/n, and there are 31 deployed throughout the airport currently. That’s just a fraction of the more than 300 that they plan to install! The idea is to have VOIP-level wireless, which means three overlapping access points, with five bars everywhere. I tried connecting in the tower (which doesn’t have any access points currently) and I got four bars, so I was quite impressed!

To connect to the free wi-fi, look for the EIA_FREE_WIFI network. On devices like laptops, you’ll get presented with a splash screen that you need to login to. You can either choose anonymous access for 15 minutes (after which you go back to the splash screen and can choose it again), login with Facebook, login with your carrier account (Bell, Telus, Rogers, etc), or you can get a password sent to you via SMS. The authentication helps ensure that the network is not abused. On devices like cell phones that support voice over wi-fi, the authentication step can be skipped. There is no content or port filtering once you’re connected.

I’m really happy that EIA now offers free wireless Internet access. It’s such a positive thing for Edmontonians who are waiting to fly out, and for visitors to our city whose first impression is the airport. To celebrate, EIA is encouraging people to become fans on Facebook. If you do it before August 13, you’ll be entered to win a $1000 travel voucher, a 32 GB iPod, or free parking.

Congrats to EIA on making free wi-fi a reality!