British Columbia·Metro Matters

Castlegar's airport: a punchline, strategic hub — and top priority for the new mayor

For those outside the West Kootenay, it might seem like a Sisyphean quest. But there are around 100,000 British Columbians for whom the airport is their main aviation option — and increased reliability could be a gamechanger.

But hopes of ditching the 'Cancelgar' nickname ultimately lie with an airline, not the city

Delays at the West Kootenay Regional Airport in Castlegar, B.C., are so notorious that the city is called 'Cancelgar' by some. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Tell people you're about to arrive or depart from the West Kootenay Regional Airport, and chances are you'll receive a very predictable joke.

"It's not a good stigma to have," said Castlegar Mayor Bruno Tassone, of the airport where delays and cancellations are so notorious that it's responsible for the most common nickname for his city. 

The airport is owned and operated by the local government, and Tassone says his top priority is increasing its reliability. 

But the path to making that happen highlights the limited power municipal governments often have.

Air Canada's planes going in and out of Castlegar are Dash 8 aircraft, which would need to be upgraded if the airport were to adopt a new system that would minimize delays. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Why are delays so common?

The narrow valleys of the West Kootenay may make for picturesque views, but it's the biggest reason why getting in or out by plane is such a fraught experience. 

"It's kind of in multiple valleys, with big mountains for both approaches," said Jim Gouk, a former MP for the region who has served as a consultant for the city in its efforts to improve the airport.

"So it requires the aircraft to do a turn relatively ... soon after takeoff and on a conventional instrument approaches, and even departures, that just doesn't work. It's not what the system was designed for."

It means that the minimum cloud ceiling for arrivals and departures from the airport is 914 metres — usually not a problem during the summer months, but something that can virtually shut down the airport for days on end during the winter. 

"The negatives of the airport happen to be a couple months in the winter time but ... I would rather the flights not come in because of a safety issue. The number one priority for us is always safety," said councillor Sue Heaton. 

"We're working hard to make our reliability increased so we don't get that nickname. And I wish people would just concentrate on that."

In 2017, a study commissioned by Castlegar detailed how reliability could be improved if an upgraded navigation system was implemented. 

The system, called Required Navigation Performance (RNP), which was outlined in the study, would allow planes to arrive and depart on a curve, avoiding the steep incline currently required and reducing the cloud ceiling to roughly 304 metres.

But it's one thing to design a new system for planes to use — it's another thing to get everyone on board with a change. 

"The problem is that it's something that takes a major commitment from the airlines and from Transport Canada in order to implement this. And so far we have not got that," said Gouk.

Castlegar Mayor Bruno Tassone says decreasing delays at the airport is his number one priority. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

"Everyone is waiting on everyone else. The airlines say they won't do it unless Transport Canada is committed to passing it. And they can't pass it until it's designed. So we keep going in this vicious circle."

Transport Canada did not respond to a request for comment, while Air Canada — which is the only airline servicing the airport — did not give a timeline for when it might replace the Dash 8 planes that currently operate on its Castlegar routes, which is part of the requirement for the RNP.   

Regional issue

It leaves Tassone forced to lobby the different stakeholders on the importance of an upgrade.

"We've heard rumblings from the federal side that 2020 possibly might be the earliest time that we can get this done. It might be later. We don't know and that's what we're trying to figure out," he said. 

For those outside the West Kootenay, it might seem like a Sisyphean quest. But there are around 100,000 British Columbians for whom the airport is their main aviation option — and increased reliability could be a gamechanger. 

"The opportunity is there," said Heaton.

"We just have to seize it and get somebody to approve it."

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

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