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Newer, larger, more fuel-efficient jets such as Canadian North's latest addition to its fleet, the 737-300, are not equipped to land on gravel runways. - Peter Worden/NNSL photo

Senate report slams airports
Recommends major investments to address short and gravel runways

Peter Worden
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 29, 2013

Short, buffer-less gravel runways and a host of other safety and security concerns are among the points raised in a recent Senate report outlining the need for major investments at Northern airports.

After two years, nearly 100 witnesses and dozens of airport tours, a Senate committee released its report on establishing a National Air Travel Strategy last week. The report calls for significant federal funding in the North and highlights the unique challenges of Northern air travel.

"The bottom line of the report basically says that the Government of Canada should invest more in air travel in Canada," committee chair Senator Dennis Dawson told Nunavut News/North. "They shouldn't see air travel as a source of revenue; they should see it as a source of investment."

Dawson said the report, titled One Size Doesn't Fit All, makes recommendations that revolve around the Canadian government recognizing the particularities of the North.

Among the litany of examples the report lists is the nature of air travel in the North where it isn't just a necessity for cargo shipping but the only mode of personal transportation.

"The airport is the only way of transport except for some shipping in the summer. You are locked into flying in and out of Iqaluit," said Dawson, adding that cost-recovery structures like improvement fees that work at larger airports don't work in a small city like Iqaluit and certainly not in hamlets of 400 or 500 people. "You can't have user-pay concept like in a southern airport. You have to be subsidized."

The report also mentions the North's many short, gravel runways are un-equipped for larger jets and lacking runways end safety areas (RESA) - a safety measure put into place at southern airports after August 2005 when an Air France A340-300 jet overshot Toronto's Pearson International runway by 200 metres. In many communities, constructing a 30 per cent buffer-zone would be overly costly and in some cases impossible without shortening already short runways.

"In an airport like Iqaluit," said Dawson, "you can have these theoretical decisions recommended by Transport Canada but when you have to put them into the geographic setting of Iqaluit, you can't make the runway any longer - it's going to be in the water."

Dawson said there are numerous instances in the North in which geographic constraints are at odds with regulatory requirements, such as the requirement that the city dump be four kilometres away from the airport. Gravel runways are another infrastructure hindrance the report foresees in the near future because larger jets with engines not gravel-equipped cannot land on the strips. The report states "the infrastructure serving remote and Northern communities may not be sufficient to meet all future needs."

It compares Alaska, which has 61 paved runways, to the NWT and Nunavut, which combined have five.

The report also notes security concerns that are likely to become more of an issue for Iqaluit's feeder airports in the smaller communities.

"Since there is no security clearance for luggage in many of these smaller airports, you can theoretically get on a plane with a gun when you're leaving one of these Northern communities," said Dawson, explaining the Iqaluit Airport will be responsible for transferring carry-on luggage to checked luggage.

The Northern Air Transport Association (NATA), a not-for-profit association representing 37 major air carriers and virtually all Northern airlines, says it supports the report, but questions the best use of funding to make Northern airports safe and efficient.

"That (money) is the bugbear forever, particularly in the Northern remote areas of Canada," said NATA executive director Stephen Nourse. "The cost to raise the infrastructure levels to what's really necessary is typically more than what most of these communities and governments can afford."

In the North, airports are more or less run by the territorial government in co-operation with the hamlet.

"It really does require the feds to step up to the plate to make a lot of this happen.

"Certainly the Harper government talks about it a lot," said Nourse, noting the photo-ops that go along with joint-military Arctic air exercises. "Hopefully he'll follow up those good words with some actual funding."

Where the money winds up is another matter, said Nourse, referencing the difficulty of implementing RESA in the North.

"Anything that enhances safety is nice to have. Our problem with RESA in Northern and remote Canada is it brings an inordinately high cost to airports," he said, citing environmental obstacles and the paradoxical requirement to shorten runways in order to implement the safety feature. Estimates vary, but it may cost as much as around $40 million in Nunavut to comply with the regulation.

"Believe me, we can spend $40 million in Nunavut on airports and come up with vastly safer systems by adding better weather monitoring, by improving strip lengths, by dealing with approach lighting, by better approaches - all these would make the system hugely safer and get the planes down safer rather than focusing on an airbag (buffer zone) at the end of the runway."

Nourse said there are other instances where money can be better spent but added he was pleasantly surprised with the depth and knowledge of the report, which is available.

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