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Several local governments are speaking out against a potential service rollback at Mike Zubko Airport as NavCan conducts a service review for Inuvik and Norman Wells.

A C130 “Hercules” refuels at Mike Zubko Airport June 22 as part of ongoing mission patrols over the Arctic Ocean. While the Canadian Forces are planning to extend their runway by 3,000 feet to accommodate larger aircraft for its mandate, NavCan is debating cutting staff at the airport to save money during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Part of the non-profits’ annual bookkeeping efforts, the organization responsible for all of Canada’s Civil Air Navigation system is debating whether it needs to pay employees to be on staff during 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift as Covid-19 forces organizations to cut back on expenditures. The review began Nov. 17 and a decision is expected by the end of January.

However, citing a number of issues that could arise from not having a person physically at the control deck, the Town of Inuvik sent a letter Nov. 27 to NavCan asking both that the status quo remain, but also noting the corporation failed to extend invitations to both the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation when it announced the review of air traffic service requirements.

“They also left some of the stakeholders at the airport,” said Inuvik Mayor Natasha Kulikowski. “We did have a response, which was positive, with a very quick turn-around time. So I think we stirred the right pot.”

Kulikowski added she has reached out to NWT MP Michael McLeod, who has voiced his support for keeping the full service, as well as getting the ear of Premier Caroline Cochrane and both Inuvik-based MLAs.

Since then, Kulikowski said the Town had gotten a response and a follow-up consultation call, in which Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Smith was available to participate.

Noting Inuvik was effectively the hub for the entire Beaufort Delta, Smith told Inuvik Drum having staff on-hand was essential for emergencies that involve a medical evacuation, since anyone in the region is first taken to Inuvik for assessment before determining if they need to be put on a flight to a more equipped hospital further south.

He added that while there may not be a high volume of medical evacuation calls in the middle of the night, when they do happen they’re critical calls with very little time to made decisions and even smaller room for error. Cutting an eight-hour time period in Inuvik would also cut out that period in the other seven Beaufort Delta communities — none of which have their own health centre to deal with emergencies.

Kulikowski pointed out Inuvik is a vital strategic location for a number of organizations in the north, noting it is the most active NORAD base in Canada and pointing out the Canadian Forces was expanding a runway by 3,000 feet to allow for larger aircraft, alongside other improvements being covered by territorial and federal governments.

“When we first heard that this was coming,” she said. “It was concerning right away because when you look at the amount of dollars being put into our airport, the idea of reducing any service seems a little bit absurd.

“I can understand the NavCan side of it — they’re looking for ways to save money right now and they’re just assessing, but we thought it was really important to get the point home that while they’re assessing us, they can take us off the list.”

NWT MP Michel McLeod has also voiced his support for keeping the status quo.

Premier Caroline Cochrane told Inuvik Drum she was concerned about the change and had written to NavCan with her thoughts on the matter.

“It’s hard for people in Ottawa to understand the realities of the North, the isolation and the reliance we have on our airports,” she said. “Fire seasons, medevacs, everything is really reliant. My understanding is that it is a regular review that’s happening, so we voiced our concerns and look forward to a positive result.

NavCan media relations manager Brian Boudreau told Inuvik Drum any changes would have to be cleared by Canada’s Aviation Regulator.

“At Inuvik and Norman Wells, consideration is being given to air traffic services and aviation weather requirements on site during the overnight hours when traffic volumes are low,” he wrote in a statement. “In doing so, NAV CANADA is assessing what NAV CANADA services are required to maintain safety and accessibility, so that all operators can continue to land and depart safely from the airport overnight.

“The aeronautical study process, one that we have applied safely and successfully for the past 25 years, provides a systematic methodology for analyzing complex issues using a risk management approach. This will include assessment of the local operating environment, including but not limited to commercial, general aviation, military and medevac operations.”

A terms of reference for Inuvik provided by NavCan states currently the organization currently operates a Flight Service station which provides 24-hour Aerodrome Advisory Services (AAS), Vehicle Control Services and a Surface Weather Observation program. These are handled by human observers on the ground and enable a 24-hour weather forecast service.

According to the terms, air traffic at the airport has dropped 13 per cent from 2016 to 2019, or roughly 11,300 less flights per year, which puts the airport below the guidelines for a 24-hour AAS.

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Eric Bowling

A lover of knowledge and adventure, Eric Bowling jumped at the opportunity to write for the Inuvik Drum and to see the world from a totally different vantage point. He has covered just about everything...

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