Liberals face difficult decision on fate of controversial Challenger jets
Outdated technology on two of the federal government's four Challenger jets means the executive aircraft will no longer be allowed to fly in many countries — or even in Canada — within a few years.
While the need to replace the Challengers was flagged to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a memo from officials following the election, making such a decision could be easier said than done given the controversy attached to the planes.
Due to more congested airspace and the incorporation of newer digital technology, such as GPS in air-traffic control, countries around the world are phasing in new standards requiring modern navigation systems on all aircraft.
Two Challengers purchased by the federal government in the early 2000s are OK because they have relatively modern systems, Troy Crosbie, the Department of National Defence's head of procurement, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
However, for the two Challengers purchased in the 1980s, "the cockpit avionics, particularly related the navigation system in the aircraft, don't meet modern aviation standards for air navigation in crowded airspaces," he said.
"And it would be economically unfeasible to take and replace all of the avionics in those two aircraft."
A fleet 'nearing obsolescence'
Officials highlighted the problem with the Challengers, which are owned and operated by the Canadian Armed Forces, in a warning to Trudeau shortly after the Liberal government won re-election in the fall.
"The Challenger fleet, which provides strategic transportation to the government and the Canadian Armed Forces, is nearing obsolescence and falls short of meeting its operational requirements," reads the memo, obtained by The Canadian Press through an access-to-information request.
"Additional issues will soon curtail its sustainability and limit its operational effectiveness starting in 2020."
But replacing them could be politically sensitive, as governors general, prime ministers and cabinet ministers have been routinely accused in the past of using the small private jets as personal flying taxis.
Arguments that the planes, which can carry nine passengers, are required for security purposes have done little to stop opposition parties from painting any use of the aircraft as inappropriate and wasteful.
Stephen Harper's Conservative government, which was accused of excessive use of the Challengers, made a point of retiring two of the aircraft in 2014 as a cost-cutting measure. The Tories said at the time that the move would save $1.5 million per year.
The aircraft are also used by the military to transport senior officers and troops in some circumstances, as well as for medical evacuations.
The government bought itself some time when it inked an agreement in December that lets the two older aircraft continue to fly in the U.S., but other countries are starting to bring in the same technological standards. Canada itself will implement the standards between 2021 and 2023.
"We're going to have to figure out how to move forward here," Crosbie said. "There's different options ... In the meantime, (the Challengers) continue to fly. The fleet is still delivering."
Problems with the Polaris
Challengers aside, the Canadian Armed Forces saw a spate of hard luck with its fleet of larger CC-150 Polaris VIP aircraft late last year.
The 32-year-old Polaris normally used to transport the prime minister rolled into a wall while being towed into a hangar at 8 Wing Trenton in October, sustaining significant damage to its nose and right engine cowling. It is out of commission until August for repairs.
And then the back-up Polaris that carried Trudeau to a NATO military alliance meeting in London in December ended up having to return to Canada early because of mechanical problems.
The Royal Canadian Air Force commandeered another Polaris — which was in Italy with Governor-General Julie Payette, who was on a European tour of her own — to take Trudeau, his entourage and accompanying media back to Ottawa.