British Columbia

Possible cuts to air traffic control services raise safety concerns in affected B.C. communities

Airports in Prince George and Castlegar say it isn't right to consider reducing services when, prior to the pandemic, air traffic was actually increasing. They also cite safety concerns surrounding medical emergencies and wildfires.

Nav Canada considering cutting jobs at towers across Canada, including those in Prince George and Castlegar

Prince George International Airport is one of dozens of regional airports across the country where Nav Canada is considering cutting air traffic control services. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Communities in the B.C. Interior are voicing safety concerns over possible cuts to air traffic control services at regional airports. 

Nav Canada, the company that runs the country's air navigation service, says it has to slash expenses to deal with a revenue slump caused by a drop in commercial flights during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is costing it as much as $518 million.

As a result it is conducting studies of air traffic control towers in dozens of small cities across Canada, including Prince George and Castlegar in B.C., which could result in layoffs and the closure of towers in those communities.

But affected airports say it isn't right to consider reducing services when, prior to the pandemic, air traffic was actually increasing. They also cite safety concerns surrounding medical emergencies and wildfires.

'Absolute lunacy'

The Prince George Airport Authority says passenger numbers steadily increased over the past decade to nearly 500,000 in 2019, before the drop in commercial traffic in 2020.

Cariboo–Prince George MP Todd Doherty, who previously worked for the airport authority, says it's "absolute lunacy" Nav Canada is considering reducing its services, because there's still local demand for them.

"Air traffic control towers are critical for the safe and efficient movement of aircraft both on the ground as well as the air, especially during inclement weather of ice fog," he said.

Gordon Duke, CEO of the Prince George Airport Authority, says slashing air traffic controller jobs may have a big impact on essential services.

"We have a very busy MedEvac [medical evacuation] operation here. They will want to make sure that that's considered in any material change to the level of [air traffic control] service," he told Chris Walker, host of CBC's Daybreak South.

The West Kootenay Regional Airport in Castlegar, B.C., hosts firefighting aircraft during wildfire season. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

The West Kootenay Regional Airport in Castlegar estimates it's had nearly 10,000 commercial flight passengers this year, a far cry from the annual average of 80,000 passengers between 2015 and 2019. 

Chris Barlow, chief administrative officer of the City of Castlegar, says despite the sharp drop in air traffic, changes to air control tower services in the regional airport could have safety implications for not only passengers, but also wildfire season.

"We're also the host for the Southeast Fire Centre…The [Kootenay] Valley can get very busy when there's forest fires in the area," he said.

"[I] just don't see the reason why we would take away that layer of safety, especially right now."

Barlow says Nav Canada is scheduled to meet this month with stakeholders of all regional airports where it's considering cutting services.

With files from Ashley Burke, Andrew Kurjata and Daybreak South

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