'I don't want a small town:' Airport leaders rally to save control towers

REGINA — Eleven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, silence fills Regina's airport.

Empty check-in counters line one side of the terminal while the odd employee moves behind reception along a row of vehicle rental desks.

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There's no one on the staircase passengers use upon arriving in Saskatchewan's capital city. The number of flights scheduled to land on Monday: four.

"It’s almost like a ghost town," said James Bogusz, CEO and president of the Regina Airport Authority.

Canada's aviation industry has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, because of federal travel restrictions and public-health advice urging would-be travellers to stay home.

Bogusz said he's concerned that any comeback in air travel could be hampered in Regina by service reductions to air-traffic control.

Nav Canada, the non-profit body that runs the country's civil air navigation service, is reviewing airport towers in Regina and six other small Canadian cities. That has triggered concerns from local leaders about the effect on their airports and community businesses.

"I don’t want a small town," said Bogusz. "I want my mid-size city airport back."

The other airport towers under review are in St-Jean, Que., Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, Fort McMurray, Alta., Prince George, B.C., and Whitehorse, Yukon.

At the heart of each review is whether air traffic at the airports warrants having a control tower as opposed to an advisory service for pilots.

"We have to operate the right service, at the right place, at the right time," said Jonathan Bagg, Nav Canada's director of stakeholder and industry relations.

"The COVID-19 pandemic does give us additional stimulus because of the financial environment; however, the studies are warranted regardless of COVID-19."

He explained that an air traffic controller provides instructions to pilots during times including takeoff; an advisory service offers guidance through information that includes weather and runway conditions

Bagg said the reviews will not compromise safety and Nav Canada is looking at air traffic numbers at the airports before the pandemic.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens wants his city off the list because of its proximity to Detroit, which makes airspace more complicated.

Dilkens, who also chairs the airport's board, questions how losing the airport's tower would affect attracting new airlines and routes.

"Anything that causes them an additional level of concern that makes us less competitive — that’s our economic concern."

WestJet has said control towers don't influence its operations.

Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah said losing towers "would have an impact on overall efficiencies as airline operations become significantly more complex."

She cited possible delays at non-controlled sites and the need for additional fuel to cover delays or diversions to other airports.

"These inefficiency factors all increase operating costs and can affect the overall commercial viability of routes."

RJ Steenstra, president and CEO of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority, said closing its tower could affect future efforts to diversify tourism in the region.

"German charter carriers will not fly to an airport that doesn’t have a tower," he said. "When so much of the industry is in flux, it’s not a good time to make a decision like this."

Bagg said Nav Canada hopes to present by spring its recommendations for the seven towers to Transport Canada, which must give final approval.

Six premiers have asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to delay a decision until after COVID-19 is under control enough so travel restrictions can be lifted.

In a statement, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Transport Canada would do its own safety review of any proposed changes.

Dilkens said it would be a mistake for Ottawa to ignore economic implications. The government has spent million of dollars improving Windsor's airport.

Notices about layoffs were issued to air traffic controllers last month, raising concerns that closures have already been decided. "This has eroded our trust in the process," said Bogusz.

Bagg said letters were sent because the collective agreement requires employees be notified that their jobs may be at risk. The layoffs are subject to the outcome of the reviews.

The Canadian Air Traffic Control Association, which represents air traffic controllers, has said about 60 jobs would disappear if the seven towers were closed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2020

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