The last thing Cristine Urquhart expected when she stepped off a Pacific Coastal airplane into the blustery, gray winter landscape in Trail was a flower wreath symbolic of more tropical climates.
But as the 20,000th passenger this year for the burgeoning regional airline, Urquart was bestowed two colourful leis — and a free ticket anywhere the airline flew in B.C. — as part of a ceremony celebrating the monumental moment Thursday at the Trail Regional Airport.
“I had no idea they gave these out in Trail,” said a surprised Urquhart, a former Trail resident traveling from Vancouver to the Silver City to visit her family at Christmas time.
Urquhart was part of a packed plane-load of passengers that day, as more people are finding out about the twice-daily service from Trail to Vancouver. The air service was forecast to reach the 20,000-per-year passenger mark in 2016, not 2011, based on projected growth from its previous years.
Since its inception in Trail in 2006, the popularity of the service has resulted in the addition of a larger airplane — a 30-seat Saab 340A — to its workhorse (19-seat Beechcraft 1900C) to meet the demand for flights to and from the Lower Mainland.
The demand for the service in Trail has grown by almost 25 per cent in 2011 — up from 12,000 in 2006 — with a jump in total passengers going from 15,400 in 2010 to over 20,000 this year, said Michelle Hubert, Pacific Coastal’s Trail station supervisor.
Hubert said the increased reliability of the service has been their hallmark, with 98 per cent of their flights landing passengers on Kootenay ground.
“We’ve increased our reliability of being able to get in and out of the Kootenays, and that’s our biggest asset right now for passengers,” she said. “And I think the word is now getting out.”
Geography and technology have combined to create an optimum situation for air traffic in Trail over the other regional airport in Castlegar, according to Hubert.
The valley that contains Trail’s airport is much less prone to bad weather and low-lying clouds than the end of the Columbia River Valley.
And if conditions worsen in Trail, Pacific Coastal flights have the option of landing in Castlegar and bussing passengers back to Trail — meaning the airline has two airports they can service out of instead of just one.
“Overall, planes land 16 per cent more successfully in Trail than they do in Castlegar,” said Hubert.
So far this year, Pacific Coastal has only had to use the Castlegar airport 10 times.
In addition, high-tech global positioning systems and an entry point due south of Trail over American air space have allowed the airport to increase its success rate of a plane landing, said volunteer attendant Al Doherty.
“In bad weather there is more reliability getting in,” he said, with planes able come down to a safe altitude of 4,400 feet on their glide path into Trail more readily than in Castlegar.
In addition to Trail, Pacific Coastal services 65 B.C. destinations through 15 airports — with over 50 regularly scheduled flights — through the hub of the Vancouver South Terminal. Pacific Coastal employs six people in Trail, with five unpaid volunteer attendants.