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Waterloo region is hopeful new airlinks will boost business

Alan Caslin, Chair of the Niagara Region, and Chris Nowrouzi, CEO of Greater Toronto Airways

Greater Toronto Airways

At least two small airlines are hoping to increase service to Waterloo, Ont. – a proposition that many locals believe would boost business in the fast-growing startup hub.

One is Greater Toronto Airways, which recently announced it would launch service to the Niagara Region next month from its base at downtown Toronto's Billy Bishop Airport. The private airline's chief executive, Chris Nowrouzi, said he's been involved in serious discussions with officials in the Waterloo region. He expects to begin daily service in early 2017, once the proper permits are in place.

"It seems everyone is on board," said Mr. Nowrouzi. "It's a definite at this point."

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Another airline is Canada Jetlines Ltd., which has held off its cross-country service launch out of secondary airports while it seeks a foreign funding exemption from the government, a step it needs so it can meet the last requirement of its reverse takeover of Jet Metal Corp. Jetlines plans to go public on the TSX Venture, which has conditionally approved the transaction.

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Canada Jetlines chief executive Jim Scott said by e-mail that a "brand name" company is ready to invest in Jetlines, but its stake would be greater than the industry's 25-per-cent foreign investment limit. Jetlines submitted an exemption request to Transport Canada in May and, after a consultation process wrapped up last month, is waiting for a final decision.

Mr. Scott also said Jetlines, which calls itself an "ultra-low cost carrier," has a number of routes planned out to connect Waterloo and "major city centres" in Canada and the U.S. Jetlines has named nearby Hamilton as one of its hubs.

The commute between Toronto and Waterloo is a source of aggravation for many of the 200,000 people in the region's tech sector who need to shuttle back and forth for meetings with clients, financial backers, advisers and even remote staff. There are active discussions amongst all three levels of government to improve transportation on the ground, but so far air transportation has remained a remote possibility.

Tony LaMantia, the president and chief executive of the Waterloo Region Economic Development Corporation, cannot quantify how much growth would be added to Toronto-Waterloo's combined $350-billion GDP with better transit infrastructure. But he is convinced that the region, especially the biggest employers housed there, would benefit from air service.

"Nothing I could do in economic development in terms of attracting an anchor company would be as significant as a Toronto air [link]," said Mr. LaMantia. "It's a priority for us and a priority for the community."

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Mallorie Brodie and Lauren Lake, co-founders of Kitchener's Bridgit, a communication platform for construction workers, say they travel several times a month along Ontario's Highway 401. But they admit they wouldn't be likely candidates to purchase a seat onboard an aircraft, although they say they'd consider it if tickets were cheap enough.

Mr. Nowrouzi wouldn't disclose what his company would charge for the 17-minute flight between Waterloo and Toronto, but said the ticket price would be similar to the fare between Toronto and Niagara, which, according to its website, is $85 for one-way travel.

"It would be a financial decision," said Ms. Brodie in a phone interview conducted while driving with Ms. Lake along the 401. "For the right price we would do it."

Both Ms. Brodie and Ms. Lake are proponents of a high-speed rail link, a possibility that the province is currently exploring.

For their part, the country's two national carriers, Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd., have no plans to fly between Toronto and Waterloo. WestJet said the short hop wouldn't make economic sense, especially with the large jets in its fleet and its lack of slots at Billy Bishop. The largest tenant at Toronto Island's airport, Porter Airlines, said it has no "imminent" plans to add Waterloo to its flight map.

Mr. Nowrouzi said Greater Toronto Airways would break even if the company's eight-seat, twin-engine aircraft flew half-full each way. He's also looking to convince large companies to commit to "a seat per day" as a means to make profitability more likely. And he's stopped in Pennsylvania this week, shopping to expand his fleet.

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In terms of logistics, the Region of Waterloo International Airport, a 20-minute drive from Waterloo in Breslau, Ont., is on board. The airport's general manager, Chris Wood, said he has spoken with Mr. Nowrouzi and is hopeful that Greater Toronto Airways will follow through.

"We've invested a lot of money into the airport and we're trying to utilize the asset as best we can," said Mr. Wood, adding that even though he's had discussion with other airlines, none has found a way to make the Toronto-Waterloo route profitable. "Porter is the obvious choice, but their airplanes are quite large and it [wouldn't be] the most efficient use of their [fleet]."

Ultimately, Mr. Wood said, it's the airline's decision to proceed with service. "We're completely willing and able to help an operator." But the benefit is mutual, especially after October when airport traffic slows down to just one flight a day.

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