Jack Knox: No more RCMP presence at Victoria airport

So, if they’re pulling the Mounties out of the Victoria airport, that must mean the War on Terror is over.

Which means Ottawa is cancelling the security fee that’s tacked on to every airline ticket, right? Well, no....

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They are doing away with the RCMP presence at Victoria International, though, meaning we’re going back to pre-Osama days. Back then, the airport would call the Sidney/North Saanich RCMP if the police were needed. Then, in 2006, Ottawa expanded a post-9/11 program that paid for beefed-up policing of major Canadian airports.

After that, passengers saw a regular Mountie presence in the airport. They’re there from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week.

The job is currently done by four reserve officers — retired Mounties working part-time on contract — with a combined 140 years of service. “I would say they have more experience than half our detachment combined,” says Cpl. Erin Fraser of the Sidney/North Saanich RCMP.

The RCMP likes the arrangement because its regular members aren’t tied up with airport duties. Since the money, about $200,000 a year, almost all comes from Transport Canada, it has been a good deal for local taxpayers, too. It isn’t a question of Mounties policing the airport instead of chasing bank robbers, or whatever.

It’s not exactly Dodge City duty, with Jesse James and the Taliban trading shots over the luggage carousel. Every once in a while, someone will forget that you’re supposed to wait until you get to Vegas before going into Vegas mode, and will have to be stopped from boarding while hammered. Or if security staff doing the pre-boarding screening see something illegal in luggage — say, brass knuckles — the police will be summoned to seize it.

Most of the time, the Mounties need be armed with nothing more than a smile. Sometimes, they end up watching over elderly passengers struggling with dementia or other infirmities. If someone has forgotten his ID, the cops can do the checks necessary to get him on his plane. They’ll show up in the departures area when a flight has been delayed, just to be a calming influence on any frustrated flier who might be considering blowing a gasket.

What can’t be quantified are the problems that have been avoided just by having them on site, Fraser says. “The mere presence has probably prevented a lot from happening.”

Their proximity is a comfort. “Having the timely response from them is fantastic,” says Dawn Rees, customer-services manager for Horizon Air. Far better to have a cop respond to a problem right away than have to wait for someone to drive over from elsewhere on the Peninsula, particularly when higher-priority calls might delay the response.

That will be the reality as of April 1, though. The four medium-size airports — Victoria, Kelowna, Hamilton and London, Ont. — that got Airport Policing Contribution Program funding from Transport Canada in 2006 learned last spring that they will lose it as of March 31.

The writing was on the wall. The deficit-hobbled federal government is cutting everywhere. Transport Canada had quietly stopped funding policing of Canada’s eight major airports three years ago, forcing their local authorities to find the money in their own budgets — and while those authorities had no choice but to pay for a police presence that is mandated at large airports, such is not the case here. There’s no regulatory requirement to have Mounties in medium-size airports.

While the Victoria Airport Authority has been “thrilled” with the RCMP service, it couldn’t justify spending the $200,000, said CEO Geoff Dickson. The Ontario airports feel the same way, though Kelowna has chosen to continue with a peak-hours RCMP presence, with the municipality paying 20 per cent of the cost and the airport finding the rest from its own revenues.

So it will be back to the future in Victoria, the RCMP reserves in the airport disappearing and the Sidney/North Saanich Mounties being on call.

Ottawa will continue charging Canadian airline passengers a security levy, though. It ranges from $7.12 for a one-way domestic trip to $25.91 for international flights heading beyond the U.S.

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