Federal officials skip Northern aviation conference, irking delegates

Northern aviation experts are gathered in Whitehorse this week. Noticeably absent? Transport Canada officials. Of the six invited, only two showed up.

6 Transport Canada officials invited, only 2 show

Two Transport Canada officials participate in a panel discussion during the conference. Conference organizers left empty seats and name cards to illustrate the lack of attendance from officials at the event. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Northern aviation experts are gathered in Whitehorse this week, but noticeably absent are some Transport Canada officials. Of the six invited, only two showed up. 

"We think it's a real loss," said Stephen Nourse, the outgoing executive director of the Northern Air Transport Association, which hosts the annual gathering of operators and regulators.

He said he's never seen so few Transport Canada officials at the event.

Organizers placed name cards and left empty seats during one of the conference's main panel discussions to illustrate the no-shows. 

"It's much more than that formal panel, it's an opportunity for the operators and the regulators to gather and chat," Nourse said.

He called it a missed opportunity for southern officials to come and understand the Northern aviation context, first-hand.

"A lot of these people have never been to the North. And you lose the ability to take them to the airport or have them see what the conditions are that you end up operating with. 

"Understanding that is so important and you can't do that over the telephone," Nourse said.

Conference delegate Dave Millar, who works for a B.C.-based helicopter company, isn't surprised to see fewer Transport Canada officials this year. Overall, he believes Transport Canada is doing a good job, but he's concerned about federal funding. 

"I think they should put a little more money into Transport Canada if they want to maintain the level of safety that they promote," he said. 

Air North President Joe Sparling also noticed the missing officials, but expects the federal government will get the message.

"The budgetary constrains, or whatever the cause of the diminished attendance is this year, is a little disappointing to us," he said.

"During the informal conversations I've had, there's a suggestion that next year will be better."