EIA History

The Story of Edmonton International Airport

Edmonton International Airport, Canada's fifth-busiest airport, is operated by the Edmonton Regional Airports Authority (or Edmonton Airports), a community-based, not-for-profit authority established in 1990. Edmonton Airports also operates Villeneuve Airport.

Originally opened in 1927 to house a flying school, the airfield just northwest of downtown Edmonton became the city's primary scheduled airport and an important military airfield during the Second World War. However, it didn't take long for aviation and the city of Edmonton to outgrow the airport. With a city all around, there was no room to extend its less than 6,000-foot-long propeller-age runways.

By 1955, it was obvious that the downtown airport was inadequate for the coming jet airliners, which would need two-mile runways and spacious terminals to handle 100-plus passengers per flight. A site for Edmonton International Airport was selected near Leduc and Transport Canada purchased 7,600 acres of land for a total cost of $1,469,657. By an unwritten "gentleman's agreement," the original owners were allowed to lease back and continue to farm the land until it was needed for the airport. Edmonton International Airport remains Canada's largest airport in area - with more than half of its land still under cultivation.

Turning farmland into runways had some interesting complications. Weeds overtook the construction area and polluted the surrounding farmland. A stubborn clan of beavers outwitted many human attempts to prevent them from flooding the site. Airport security in those days meant keeping livestock off the runways.

On November 15, 1960, Edmonton International Airport opened for passenger service with what is now the L-3 Communications Spar Aviation hangar serving as a temporary terminal. Three years later, the 370,000-sq.-ft. steel and glass building that is now the core of EIA's north terminal opened. It cost $10 million and was ready a year ahead of schedule.

Designed for a 20-year horizon, the terminal was underutilized for its first years of operation, but this was not to last. In 1962, the old airport processed 394,000 passengers. By 1973 the number nearly doubled to 755,000 and by 1974 it exceeded 1.1 million passengers. In 1980, passengers numbered over 2 million and the summer of 1983 saw the completion of a 50,000-sq. ft. addition.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Edmonton International Airport handled a second generation of wide-body jets such as Boeing 747s and Lockheed 1011s that carried up to 400 passengers nonstop to Europe. At the same time, the Edmonton Municipal Airport developed a growing niche as a hub for short-haul flights, including Pacific Western Airlines' frequent Boeing 737 AirBus service to Calgary.

Although more convenient for some business travellers, the two-airport system had many disadvantages. Connecting passengers often had to travel between two airports. Passenger volumes at EIA actually declined between 1983 and 1995. There were fewer nonstop flights from Edmonton International and more connections required through Calgary or Vancouver. Passenger growth at "the Muni" created more aircraft noise near the downtown airport.

In October 1995, 77 per cent of Edmontonians voted to consolidate commercial flights at the International Airport. The Municipal Airport would continue to serve private and general aviation under a new name, the Edmonton City Centre Airport.

Although a success, consolidation put new pressures on Edmonton International Airport. The terminal had been designed to accommodate 2.5 million passengers per year, but by 1999, 3.8 million passengers were using EIA. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Edmonton International Airport underwent a major construction program costing $450 million. A new south terminal was built to house Air Canada and international carriers, while rapidly growing WestJet became the principal tenant of the north terminal. A Central Hall was developed to house passenger screening and retail services for both terminals and to accommodate commuter carriers. A new cargo apron was built to handle growing volumes of shipments by air.

By 2007, EIA was handling over 6 million passengers per year, flying to 53 non-stop destinations in Canada, the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe. To accommodate 9 million passengers in 2012, Edmonton International Airport spent another $700 million ($300 million under budget) on an airport expansion project that added gates, built a new passenger concourse and expanded parking.

2014 was a record year for EIA; the airport served over 8.2 million passengers. EIA's long-term goal is to serve 10 million passengers by 2020.