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Why more oil sands companies are choosing to develop air transportation services to access their remote operations

Landing in Leismer

Dec 5, 2012

by Geoffrey Morgan

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Suncor Energy and its predecessor, Sun Oil Company, have had an aviation program for more than 65 years. The company’s SunJet fleet includes four Bombardier regional jets and two corporate jets
Photograph Ewan Nicholson

The company operating a tiny, privately owned airstrip northwest of Conklin, Alberta, is gearing up to service Boeing 737 jet airliners. Statoil Canada, which owns and operates the Leismer Aerodrome, handled 38,000 passengers last year and averages 334 landings and takeoffs per month at the airstrip. And while Conklin has a population of only 337 people, there are three other competing airstrips in the immediate area. Tom Arisman, operations manager at Statoil, says the company’s goal is to build the Leismer Aerodrome into the airport of choice in Conklin.

“Our ultimate goal is to be the regional aerodrome of choice for the Conklin area” – Tom Arisman, operations manager at Statoil Canada and vice-president of Leismer Aerodrome.

The cost of building an aerodrome in the oil sands ranges from $10 million to $40 million. Still, oil sands producers like Suncor, Canadian Natural Resources, Devon and Shell all own aerodromes that allow airplanes to land at their operations, some of which are already capable of handling a 737 jet. Suncor’s Firebag Aerodrome can, for example, and the company’s director of transportation, Bill Grainger, says it’s cheaper for Suncor to fly workers in on its own airline than it is to land a commercial carrier on its 2,100-metre paved runway.

Statoil’s aerodrome includes a 1,524-metre gravel runway, a terminal building and an automated weather station. In the future, the company plans to pave and extend the runway to 2,133 metres as it increases its production at its in-situ oil sands operation. And Statoil isn’t the only company expanding its air transport division. Here’s a look at what energy companies are doing to fly more people directly to their oil sands projects.

Project Pilots

Suncor Energy recently bought a fourth Bombardier Challenger regional jet to ferry workers to and from its Firebag Aerodrome and nearby oil sands project of the same name. The company’s airline, SunJet, is one of the larger air transport divisions in the energy sector, employing 75 people – including pilots and flight attendants – and it has regular flights between Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray and Saskatoon. The company transports most of its 25,000 monthly passengers on its own aircraft, but it will hire commercial airlines when SunJet is busy.

Requesting Permission to Land

Statoil keeps a staff of 10 people employed on the ground at the Leismer Aerodrome. They are responsible for everything from baggage management to de-icing the runway and planes, which are not always full of Statoil workers.

Arisman says Leismer is used by other producers in the region, including Cenovus, and therefore doubles as a bus station for arriving and departing workers who, in Statoil’s case, travel 17 kilometres by bus between the aerodrome and the work site. Arisman says the modular terminal building at Leismer (which is similar to what exists at Canadian Natural’s Horizon aerodrome) keeps arriving workers out of the cold as buses arrive to transport them to site.

Connecting Flights

Just as energy companies develop and expand their own airstrips, regional airports are facing similar pressure to expand. The Fort McMurray Regional Airport served 724,000 passengers in 2011 (up from 223,000 in 2004) and was originally designed to hold only 200 people at a time.

The airport authority is currently expanding the terminal building to hold 400 people during peak hours.

In Bonnyville, meanwhile, town council has asked Cenovus, Imperial Oil and Canadian Natural Resources to help upgrade the town’s regional airport. In fact, Cenovus is now the biggest user of Bonnyville’s airport and has agreed to contribute $300,000 toward a new weather system and a new GPS tool that will allow the company’s planes to land in foggy conditions.

Length Matters

The Fort McMurray Airport is already the busiest single-runway airport in Canada, and the airport authority expects it will continue to get busier as projects like Imperial’s Kearl begin producing crude. And while there are 724,000 people who use Fort McMurray’s airport per year, there are thousands of additional passengers who fly directly to the oil sands and land on similarly sized runways.

Imperial Oil currently lands on its competitor’s runways when it transports workers to and from the Kearl oil sands project.

Edmonton’s E Construction built CNRL’s aerodrome, including its paved runway and adjacent apron, at a cost of $10 million, to handle two Boeing 737-600 aircraft.

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