It’s been a turbulent year for the Fort McMurray International airport.
During the 2020 calendar year, the airport served 229,000 passengers – down 65 per cent from the year before. That’s a hard enough blow to take. But there could be worse news ahead.
Nav Canada, the private company that runs Canada’s air traffic control system, is conducting “level of service” reviews of seven mid-sized airports—Fort McMurray, St. Jean, Windsor, Sault Saint Marie, Regina, Prince George and Whitehorse—with an eye to closing their air traffic control towers.
Many smaller airports do function without air traffic controllers. Still, closing towers could mean a loss of flights, especially international ones – and an economic and reputational blow to those cities.
Fort McMurray has good case for needing air traffic control. It’s an international airport that handles everything from Boeing 737-800s to helicopters. It hosts a busy flight school. It’s the Medevac centre for northeastern Alberta, and only airport between Edmonton and Yellowknife equipped to handle aircraft that might need to make emergency landings.
All that may not matter, though, because Nav Canada is in the midst of its own existential crisis.
Normally, Nav Canada brings in annual revenues of some $1.4 billion.
The earth is round—which means many international flights short-cut through our northern airspace. Nav Canada charges a service fee to every flight that overflies Canada – even if that flight is bound from Beijing to New York, from Dubai to Seattle.
In 2017-2018, Nav Canada collected $404 million in fees from domestic flights within Canada. It made $389 million from international flights in and out of Canada. But it made $420 million from international “overflights.” Imagine the shock, when Covid hit and flight volumes fell 70 per cent.
Nav Canada has already laid off or eliminated about almost 20 per cent of its work force. In addition to considering closing towers in places like Fort McMurray, it’s also considering eliminating flight service stations at smaller airports – including Lloydminster, Peace River, and High Level.
Those airports don’t have control towers. They rely instead on air traffic specialists, who monitor flight plans, ensure the runways are clear and provide weather reports. Without Nav Canada services, airports would be left scrambling to stay open.
Nav Canada may also end overnight services at other airports, including Prince Albert, Inuvik and Fort St. John.
Small wonder small communities across the country are calling on Transport Canada to intervene.
But here’s the catch. Nav Canada has been privatized since 1996. Transport Canada can intervene if a reduction of service presents substantive safety concerns. But such service reviews are supposed to be apolitical, safeguarded from ministerial intervention.
The Nav Canada model worked well when fees paid by big international carriers subsidized small local airports. Now, the model’s broken – and may be broken for years.
Yet Nav Canada cannot make up its $600 million revenue shortfall by pulling services from regional airports. The loss to those communities, and to our national air transportation network, could be catastrophic – but the overall savings to Nav Canada would still be minimal. Sacrificing our local airports to get through the Covid crisis is dangerously short-term thinking.
This is an issue that should unite us, coast to coast. We need a coherent national strategy to sustain our air sector through this emergency, one that includes serious analysis of the way Nav Canada is owned, operated and funded, now and for the future.
One day, Covid will be behind us, and we’ll need regional airports to link our country and kick-start our economy. Let’s make sure we protect them now—so we’ll have them then.
The Hon. Paula Simons is an Independent Senator from Alberta, and a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Transportation and Communications.