Early last spring, on a bluebird morning in April, I found myself perched apprehensively alongside my older brother Matt and our friend Tom Enns on Whistler’s infamous ‘Peak Express’ chair – slowly ascending to the highest skiable point on the mountain. As someone who’s so afraid of heights that I once refused to re-shingle my backyard shed for fear of falling off, I was definitely out of my comfort zone. And yet I was also exactly where I wanted to be – facing fears head on and intentionally ‘getting after it,’ as they say. Just a month later, on a balmy morning in May, I found myself clambering over massive boulders along the coast at Nova Scotia’s Peggy’s Cove, with my TOQUE partner Cai – feeling the ocean spray on my face as I made my way to the base of the place’s picturesque white- and red-painted lighthouse. (You know the one.) As someone who could spend all day staring out at ocean waves, I was a happy clam indeed. 

The fact that I managed to bridge two coasts, span over 7000 feet of altitude, and register a range of about 30 degrees Celsius in just over thirty days is not lost on me. These two adventures were a study in contrasts. In fact, there was really only one striking similarity shared between them – the place where each trip began. I’m referring to our backyard springboard to the world: the Region of Waterloo International Airport. 

‘I’m happy to hear that our Airport could serve as a jump-off point for your travels,’ Rod Regier, Commissioner of Planning, Development, and Legislative Services with the Region of Waterloo (and avid hang glider) remarks when I regale him with tales of my coast-hopping adventures. ‘We’ve worked hard to position our Airport as the most attractive option for folks embarking on trips just like this.’ It’s an afternoon in January, and Rod and I are chatting on zoom about the Region of Waterloo International Airport and the integral role it plays in – and for – our communities: as an enabler of connectivity, driver of economy, and facilitator of adventure. 

It wasn’t always this way. As a kid growing up in Kitchener-Waterloo, the ‘Breslau airport’ (as we called it back then) was where we went to watch the annual airshow, and that was it. If our family wanted to travel by plane, it was off to Pearson we’d go. Not anymore, though. Especially since the Airport managed to secure Flair Airlines as a regular carrier – which included granting them route exclusivity for two years so Flair could focus on customers, not competition. Rod recalls the details for me: ‘In 2017, Regional Council approved a three hundred and seventy five million dollar, twenty-year Airport Master Plan to enable it to meet the travel needs of our growing community, while also responding to the capacity challenges at Pearson.’ He continues, ‘we’ve worked hard to transform our Airport into a real option for travellers who might not want to drive into the GTA to fly.’ And it’s worked. What was once a regional airport designed around fifty- to seventy-seater jets is now a national and international going concern – with regular Flair flights leaving to everywhere from Vancouver and Halifax (such as the flights I took last year) to Calgary, Winnipeg, Cancun, Fort Lauderdale, and beyond. 

To deal with the increased capacity (including more travellers and much larger two-hundred seat 737 jets) the Airport has been expanding its terminals – and doing so in a unique, responsible way. ‘No shovels were put in the ground before funds were secured,’ Rod tells me – a tinge of pride in his voice. ‘In fact, the Airport expansion [which includes new arrivals and departure lounges, multiple parking stands, and an impressive baggage handling system] has been entirely financed by the ongoing attraction and retention of new businesses – including Flair.’ The result of this strategic approach is that the cost per regional household to sustain the Airport is actually lower today than it was in 2017 – at the beginning of the implementation of the Master Plan. 

Today’s Airport is a different beast, indeed. 

‘The Airport now serves a core population of about one million,’ Rod notes when I ask him about the hub’s primary catchment, ‘including upwards of ninety thousand university and college students from Laurier, Waterloo, Guelph, and Conestoga.’ Indeed, the Airport has been a lifesaver of sorts for students who use it to travel home for the holidays, or to attend academic conferences, or to vacation with friends. And students aren’t the only ones enjoying the fruits of Rod’s (and others’) labour. The airport is also an important tool for the region’s business sector. ‘Many of our region’s business leaders use the Airport as a convenient way to connect with their national or international offices,’ Rod tells me. ‘It’s not uncommon for c-suite executives to fly from our Airport to locations across the country to check on their teams.’ And not always on Flair, either. Indeed, there are around two hundred and fifty private and chartered aircraft based in the Airport’s fifty-some hangars. And while current business leaders employ the Airport as a means to connect with the world (and, thus, compete globally), they also use the Airport as a tool for employee attraction and retention – just as the region uses the Airport as a tool for business attraction and retention. 

And the Airport moves more than people. It’s also a mover of freight. ‘While airports in Hamilton and Toronto move more cargo than ours does,’ notes Rod, ‘the fact that our Airport has the capacity to receive freight is invaluable for our manufacturing communities.’ Indeed, our region is home to an incredible number of ‘just-in-time’ (JIT) manufacturers: companies that produce items on-demand in order to increase efficiency, reduce cost, and speed up product delivery. (Think of our region’s auto parts manufacturers.) ‘When one of our region’s ‘just-in-time’ manufacturers needs a special part or piece of equipment delivered quickly,’ Rod observes, ‘the Airport is able to receive these bits in a highly-efficient manner – thus serving as an integral component of the region’s complex supply chains.’ Fantastic. 

Nowadays more than five hundred people work at the Airport. And while many of them are employed inside the terminal, or by the airlines, others work at the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre – one of Canada’s largest professional flight training schools. With a fleet of thirty-two aircraft and staff of over one hundred, the Flight Centre last year alone saw over one hundred thousand take-offs and landings and granted almost four hundred licenses. The Airport is also a resource to the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA), of which Rod is a board member. Billed as the world’s leading hub for sustainable aviation and aerospace research, technology, and education, WISA fosters interdisciplinary inquiry, cross-sector partnerships, and experiential learning primed to build a sustainable future. ‘It’s like a living lab to test clean tech in the industry,’ Rod explains, ‘like the new electric aircraft that’s recently been added to the Flight Centre fleet.’ And to think I assumed that the Region of Waterloo International Airport was built only for adventure.

Before we leave our conversation, I tell Rod one last thing. ‘I’m going back to Whistler this April,’ I tell him, ‘to keep dealing with that fear of heights.’ He doesn’t need to ask what airport I’ll be flying out of. We both already know.