The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Author: 
Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 
November-December
2008

Like many airports, Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International decks its halls for the winter holidays. This year, it will spend thousands of dollars on everything from professionally strung lights and wreaths to a variety of holiday entertainers - including, of course, a few hours of Santa's time during his busiest season.




Winnipeg International

Everyone's favorite destination lasts just a few hours. But its impact is felt throughout the rest of the year. It's the almost unbearable excitement on the faces of inner-city school children trekking through the airport to and from their flight on The North Pole Express.

Last year, 160 students from Pinkham and Dufferin schools took the wonder-filled flight; this year a similar-sized group from schools with similarly challenged demographics will make the journey on Dec. 18. Since The Express' maiden flight, nearly 1,000 kids who might not otherwise ever have the opportunity to fly in an airplane or go to the airport have taken the special holiday charter donated by Signature Vacations and Skyservice Airlines.

Back at the Workshop

The elves in the marketing and communications departments of the Winnipeg Airports Authority pull it all together.

"When we send out the invitations with all the details, the schools always get calls from parents who can't believe it's true," notes Christine Alongi, director of communications and public affairs for the Winnipeg Airports Authority.

The kids are bused from their schools to Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, where live reindeer from the Assiniboine Park Zoo greet them outside the terminal. After lunch in the airport's Observation Lounge, they're ushered through security to board a 757 for a 45-minute flight to the North Pole. Piercing screams of exhilaration are a given.

Not long after takeoff, the aircraft invariably takes a dip, which the pilot explains was something hitting the fuselage. That's Santa's cue to appear from behind the rear curtain to the sound of jingle bells. The rosy-cheeked man-of-the-hour personally greets every last passenger and explains that he has lost his reindeer and needs a lift. After the flight returns to the airport - sans landing fees, of course - the children deplane and receive stockings filled with treats and presents (usually educational toys and games) before they return back to school.

"The whole day is a magical adventure," notes Alongi. "There's really no other way to describe it."

In between Christmas carols and candy canes, volunteers from the airport and airline manage to sneak in a few age-appropriate educational elements - including the importance of security screenings and the basic science of the deicing process. The children also get an up-close look at a variety of careers to consider.

"At this time of year, airport passenger traffic is at an all-time high," says Barry Rempel, president and CEO of Winnipeg Airports Authority. "However this flight tends to have the most excited of passengers."

Making a List, Checking it Twice

Coordinating the necessary corporate donors begins months in advance. "Winnipeg is the giving capital of Canada," Alongi explains. "We always have more companies willing to donate goods and services than we can use; so we have different sponsors each year for things like transportation, lunch and the presents."

There's also an ample supply of airport employees ready to help the airport's regular volunteer brigade, the Goldwing Ambassadors, host the tiny guests. The children are subdivided into smaller groups and issued color-coded pinafores for easy identification. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority helps plan the day and makes sure to have extra screeners on duty. Its staff even wears Santa hats to appear less intimidating to the young travelers.

Year after year, many of the same pilots and flight attendants volunteer to "work" the special flight. Strict Scrooge screening is performed, per both airline and airport regulations.

"Everyone really pitches in to make it a day the kids will always remember," says Alongi. Each year, she adds another stack of thank-you notes from the kids and their families and teachers to a large binder she circulates among airport employees "Some of the letters are so sweet, they bring tears to your eyes," she relates.

The airport traditionally enjoys lots of good press coverage from the annual event, now in its sixth year. Reporters are invited along on the flight and given full access for interviews and photos. Based on their reports, visions of sugarplums could soon be completely eclipsed by memories of smooth takeoffs and landings.

Extending the Holiday Spirit

Some members of the press even get involved as participants. Local radio personalities help lead the in-flight carol singing and the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press dresses up as an elf - providing yet another compelling reason for reporters to cover the event.

In addition to organizing and hosting the North Pole Express, airport employees also deliver holiday hampers filled with gifts to five local families (as well as sweets for the other children in the neighborhood). But the airport's charitable acts don't end in December. Year-round efforts yielded $145,000 (cash and in-kind goods/services) for Winnipeg's less fortunate in 2007.

Subcategory: 
Operations

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