New Vancouver airport CEO takes over amid 'challenging time'

YVR boss optimistic

Tamara Vrooman knew what she was getting into accepting the role of president and CEO of Vancouver International Airport in late April - in the middle of a pandemic.

The tourism sector has been hit hard during the pandemic with passenger volumes at YVR dropping initially by more than 90 per cent.

Vrooman, who started July 1, noted travel will most likely be the last sector to reopen after the COVID-19 virus is under control.

“I knew it would be a challenging time,” she said.

But she had started as the CEO of Vancity, the largest credit union in Canada, at the beginning of the 2007 financial crisis, which she said “fundamentally changed banking and finance at that time.” This gave her the “confidence and energy” to accept the YVR position, even knowing the pandemic was going to be a big factor in operations.

“It’s not very often in your career when you get an opportunity to take a step back, in this case a forced step back, and to look at an organization and a business end to end to determine how you take that next big step forward,” Vrooman said.

“We’re questioning everything in our daily lives, how we buy groceries, how we educate our children, how we go to work – of course, an operation like an airport would have similar questions,” she added.

Vrooman said the airport entered the COVID-19 pandemic in a “strong financial position,” which will help them weather the storm and bounce back when travelling is fully opened up.

Their strong financial performance for many years and the fact YVR is an award-winning airport has put confidence in the public and investors, Vrooman explained, giving them a “very high rating” with credit agencies.

“Airports in Canada can only finance by raising debt – the ability to finance debt is the measure of financial health,” Vrooman said.

With revenue at $571 million in 2019, YVR had $75 million more in revenue than expenses last year.

After the federal ban on non-essential travel was put in place in March, the airport lost more than 90 per cent of its passengers and terminal operations were consolidated – currently, the terminal is re-opening some areas and some domestic flights are back in the domestic terminal.

The number of passengers has moved up slightly in the past week, going from a low of about 5,000 per day to between 7,000 and 9,000 per day currently. These are largely repatriation trips, according to YVR, for example, international students returning home and domestic travellers visiting friends and family.

Despite the low number of passengers, there have been almost daily alerts of possible exposure on flights going in and out YVR – in July there were 33 alerts issued by the BC Centre for Disease Control.

But Vrooman pointed out, while the alerts are in place to warn the public, there have been no known transmissions on any flights in Canada so far.

What the airport authority has control over, however, is within the terminals, and that’s where they’ve put in a multi-layered approach with mandatory masks, enhanced cleaning, social distancing and technology to check for cleanliness.

“Our commitment is not to not just keep up but to stay ahead of best practices in health screening and testing,” Vrooman said.

YVR is asking that only essential travellers and airport workers enter the building, resulting in fewer crowds.

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