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Yukon gov't pledges to re­open Whitehorse runway 19

The Yukon government has pledged to re­open Runway 19 at the Whitehorse airport after local pilots opposed the closure, calling it an important safety issue.

Pilots said closure posed safety risk to smaller planes

A small plane at the Whitehorse airport. The Yukon government has pledged to re­open Runway 19 at the Whitehorse airport after local pilots opposed the closure, calling it an important safety issue. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Yukon government has pledged to re­open Runway 19 at the Whitehorse airport after local pilots opposed the closure, calling it an important safety issue. 

Wade Istchenko, then-minister of Highways and Public Works, made the announcement at a meeting with Yukon pilots from the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association on Jan. 15. Istchenko was reassigned to the Environment portfolio on Friday.

Allan Nixon, assistant deputy minister with the department's transportation division, started the evening with an apology. 

"We realize the communication on this one could have been better. We'll take our lumps on this one," he said.

The seasonal runway in Whitehorse had initially closed due to construction, however, it stayed closed after construction ended. Pilots wondered about its future and wrote letters voicing concerns over safety. 

"If the government honours its pledge I'll be very happy," said John Faulkner, a longtime private pilot in Whitehorse.

"A lot of the smaller aircraft — even the smaller aircraft used by the commercial operators —have fairly low cross­wind limits. Ten or 12 knots. So when the wind starts to blow out of the west as it often does, if you have to use the main runway you could end up losing control of the aircraft."

Gerd Mannsperger, chief pilot at Alpine Aviation, said he feels the same way.

"It's actually great that we get a firm commitment and help to improve the safety at the airport," he said. 

Istchenko said the government is bowing to industry in re­opening the runway. 

"It's what industry wants and this government's always committed to working with industry," he said.

Istchenko said the issue was commercial space. The Yukon government is looking to lease land near the runway to allow new hangars. He described a back ­and ­forth discussion with Transport Canada over allowable size and placement of hangars. According to Istchenko, Transport Canada requested the runway be closed until the issue was resolved.

In a written statement, Transport Canada said "all decisions with respect to Runway 19, including closing the runway, rest with the Yukon Government and not with Transport Canada." 

In recent months pilots and the government had disagreed about safety rules and protocol. The Yukon government had said pilots could land as needed by declaring an intention, but pilots from COPA maintained it would require a declaration of an emergency — which is not something pilots take lightly. 

A big question during the closure was liability and insurance in case of a crash. 

"That was a question pilots had with their insurance companies. What happens if they landed on a closed runway? We took that into account," Nixon said. 

Nixon said the federal and territorial government have now reached a compromise: Allowing new hangar construction near Runway 19 but with limits on height.

"We've managed to get to a solution. Runway 19 can stay open and we can have development," he said. "It's a win-­win."

Nixon said the government will be meeting interested companies about leasing the space. Construction could begin this summer.

The government has not announced a date for the re­opening. 

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