Mike Pastro, GM of Abbotsford International Airport | BCBusiness

Mike Pastro, GM of Abbotsford International Airport | BCBusiness
Abbotsford International Airport GM Mike Pastro has had eyes for the sky since watching his first Abbotsford Airshow as a small child.

Abbotsford International Airport general manager Mike Pastro seized the opportunity to expand YXX from a minor regional player to an international gateway.

If you were alive and conscious on September 11, 2001, chances are you know exactly where you were and what you were doing. Now, just imagine if you were managing operations at an airport on that fateful day.

“We came to work that day not knowing what was going on in the world,” recalls Mike Pastro, who at the time was operations manager at the Abbotsford International Airport (which goes by the call letters YXX), where he is now general manager. He was told to expect as many as 37 commercial airliners diverted to YXX. The airport had begun hosting commercial aircraft just five years earlier, and although it was in the midst of a growth spurt, it was unaccustomed to that volume of traffic. It was up to Pastro to figure out how to accommodate the jetliners.

“We could park aircraft on our main apron, but the apron itself was too narrow to let other aircraft taxi by,” he explains. “You’d end up needing to park them nose-to-tail, so it would be first in, first out when they needed to leave.”

In the end, YXX hosted only one diverted plane, but the experience heightened Pastro’s resolve to see the Second World War-era facility become a full-service airport not only capable of handling diverted traffic from Vancouver, but also able to host thriving commercial, aerospace and general aviation industries.

“It pointed out to me that even though Abbotsford was a pretty big airport, we did not have the capacity to accommodate a large number of aircraft easily,” he says.

Appointed the airport’s general manger in 2006, Pastro made sure to fix that problem, and then some. Having recently completed a $30-million upgrade through the federal Infrastructure Stimulus Fund, YXX is ready, literally, to take on the world. Among 16 projects completed in September 2011 – on budget and ahead of schedule – is an expanded apron and a twinned taxiway, which means landing 37 aircraft today is a cinch.

It’s just the latest step in the evolution of the airport that was little more than a backwoods tarmac when Pastro came onboard as operations manager in 1987. Abbotsford-born and raised, Pastro, 54, has had eyes for the sky since watching his first Abbotsford Airshow, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, as a small child at the very airport he now helms.

After pragmatic parents counselled him against his aspirations to become a pilot, he attended UBC, earning a bachelor of commerce and business administration and specializing in transportation and public utilities. He then landed a job with Transport Canada, which at the time had the Abbotsford airport under its purview, and bounced around as field support for various small airports for six years. When a permanent position in his hometown came up, Pastro jumped at the chance, despite warnings from superiors who worried the job would squander the talents of the up-and-coming manager. “We agreed to disagree,” Pastro says, slyly.

At the time, the airport was host to one regional carrier, one aerospace outfit, a raspberry farm and quite a few trees. Transport Canada’s higher-ups thought Abbotsford was destined to remain a small outpost, but Pastro had a different vision. Noticing population shifts toward the Fraser Valley, he saw a day when the airport could hold a competitive place in the market alongside Vancouver’s YVR and airports south of the border.

Others started to see it his way around 1997, when the City of Abbotsford took ownership of the airport and an upstart airline called WestJet came looking for a no-fuss, low-cost venue out of which to launch its similarly valued brand. Pastro was exactly the person to lead the charge; he’s known for running a tight ship and finagling deals on second-hand airport equipment, while never compromising his commitment to passenger or employee safety. Relying on his knack for fiscal restraint, his team turned a mechanic’s shop into a makeshift commercial terminal, complete with a snack bar for passengers, in just three months.

Growth was exponential. Passenger volume ballooned from 3,000 annually in 1997 to more than 500,000 a decade later. The airport’s simple approach to customer satisfaction attracted airlines, which liked its low-cost, no-frills style, and travellers, who appreciated an airport experience free from worry about traffic, parking, border waits or security delays.

While he’s not one to toot his own horn, Pastro’s approach has won attention and admiration from colleagues near and far, according to Jay Teichroeb, manager of economic development at the City of Abbotsford. “He has really distinguished himself, I believe, across the country for his ability to run a safe, efficient, low-cost airport,” he says, adding that Pastro, a father of five, is a humble man who likes to operate behind the scenes. “He definitely just wants to quietly go about his business, do it well and not worry about the profile that comes with the job.”

Even with its upgrades, YXX still faces stiff competition from YVR and lower prices south of the border. But Pastro is resolute in adhering to his simple recipe of low costs and excellent customer service. He believes that offering a streamlined travel experience while still taking in $3 million annually will give Abbotsford an edge as people discover what the airport is now capable of. “We have this virtually brand-new airport, it’s a first-rate facility and we’re ready for growth now,” he says. “The next stage is going to be: let’s see what we can do with this.”