Canadian airports and cities

NAV Canada reviews tower operations at six airports

NAV Canada launches aeronautical studies at six airports. The reviews could double the number of facilities in the National Airports System without control towers even as airports renew calls for government help.

Union slams cost-cutting move calling reductions “reckless and unacceptable.”

NAV Canada airports
The sun rises over the apron at Edmonton International Airport November 24, 2020 (photo: Twitter/Steve Maybee).

Updated with union comments, Dec. 1, 2020

The union representing NAV Canada controllers is slamming a move that could see service reduced at half a dozen airports across the country.

NAV Canada is the private, not-for-profit agency that oversees Canada’s air traffic. It is reviewing the future of air traffic control towers at six airports as it looks to streamline operations and save money.

“The safety of the flying public both current and future, and the service NAV Canada is required to deliver, is being sacrificed as a reactionary measure to the current pandemic, both of which will not be recoverable in the near future,” said Doug Best, President of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association in a statement Wednesday. “To further reduce these staffing levels will debilitate the air navigation system’s ability to sustain its previous capacity and safety, and will impede Canada’s airlines’ ability to recover moving forward.”

The pandemic has hammered NAV Canada. Through the fiscal year ended August 31, NAV Canada lost more than half a billion dollars. NAV Canada has already cut staff and raised fees almost 30% this year to help balance the books.

To cut its red ink, NAV Canada has launched reviews at more than two dozen airports across Canada. In addition, it is conducting what’s called an aeronautical study at airports in Ft McMurray, Sault Ste. Marie, Prince George, Windsor, Whitehorse, and the largest airport under review, Regina.

The CATCA called NAV Canada’s potential move “reckless and unacceptable.”

NAV Canada made the announcement as the Canadian Airports Council renewed calls for help from the federal government.

“Frankly, the numbers are appalling,” said Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council. “Our best month – and I use that term very loosely – was September, when traffic was down by ‘only’ 85.2 percent.”

In October, passenger traffic was down more than 85% compared to a year ago, said the CAC. November isn’t shaping up to be any better.

The dire situation has everyone looking to cut costs wherever they can.

‘Studies turn into things’

Prince George, Whitehorse, and Regina, are all part of the National Airports System, which the federal government calls “essential to Canada’s domestic prosperity and international competitiveness.” The studies could double the number of NAS airports without towers.

“Sometimes studies turn into things,” said Regina International President and Chief Executive Officer James Bogusz in an interview. He was among airport executives who met with NAV Canada on Tuesday.

“I want to understand what the potential outcomes are so we can nip them in the bud if there’s an outcome that would be not acceptable to us as an airport,” he said. “And frankly not acceptable to us as the capital city of Saskatchewan.”

One unacceptable outcome for him would be the outright closure of the control tower.

NAV Canada control towers in Canada are operated at the busiest airports. They can be at airports as large as Toronto-Pearson – Canada’s largest passenger airport – and as small as Red Deer. NAV Canada added control tower services at the central Alberta airport earlier this month.

Controllers actively separate controlled aircraft, telling them where to fly and how fast to go.

“There’s a reason why we have them, basically, in the country,” said Bogusz. “It’s to effectively coordinate the activities during peak times especially, if you’ve got multiple airplanes, for example, waiting to land or depart or you’ve got a combination of aircraft and vehicles. The capacity to do that necessitates having eyeballs in an air traffic control tower.”

The next step down, a Flight Service Station, is also operated by NAV Canada. But those jobs are less specialized. And the people in the FSS are limited to advising aircraft about other traffic in the area, though they may also control vehicles on the ground.

An industry full of red ink

The changes come as the aviation industry grapples with its worst downturn in living memory. The International Air Transport Association estimates the world’s airlines will lose $156 billion (US) this year and next because of COVID. The challenge for everyone: people just aren’t travelling.

“People want and need global mobility,”  said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “Border closures, movement restrictions and quarantine measures make travel impossible for most.”

Canada’s borders remain closed to most non-citizens. And most people who do enter have to quarantine for two weeks. Ottawa imposed the rules in March to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. But there is a glimmer of hope.

The United Kingdom announced Tuesday that visitors to England will soon be able to shorten their quarantine if they’re willing to pay for a COVID test five days after arrival. The government of Alberta is trying a similar approach for international arrivals in that province.

“We must manage how we live with the virus,” said de Juniac. “But that does not have to mean destroying aviation, risking millions of jobs, crippling economies and tearing apart the international social fabric. We could safely open borders today with systematic COVID-19 testing.”   

Canada’s major airlines hailed the announcement.

“This is an important step in furthering the safe re-start of aviation and travel, and we will continue to work with the Canadian government to push for a clear and effective testing regime so that we can in turn address Canadian quarantine and travel restrictions,” said Mike McNaney, President and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada.

Negotiating help

The federal government is negotiating with airlines and airports about help emerging from the pandemic. But there’s a growing possibility help will come too late to prevent lasting harm to the aviation industry. Harm such as seeing your air traffic control tower closed.

“Anything at all that would reduce the operating capabilities of this airport is not something I can support,” said Regina’s Bogusz.

NAV Canada says aeronautical studies at airports take into account any number of factors. They include traffic volume, the type of aircraft in operation, and flight distribution through the day. That’s to say nothing of local conditions such as weather, the configuration of the airspace, and how busy the airfield is.

In a normal year, Regina handles about 56,000 flights, just shy of NAV Canada’s unofficial tower cut-off of 60,000 movements.

“All of that has to be coordinated,” he said. “The idea that we would be doing it as the capital city of our province from an advisory service is just unacceptable.”

Everyone stresses that tower closure is not a foregone conclusion. The company says consultation is key before any decision is made. But closure is a possibility.

“When you go down these roads, what I find in life – this is in airports, this is in any business,” said Bogusz. “When you close something it’s very tough to have something reopen. But it’s much easier if there’s an adjustment, maybe a couple of hours are shaved off, to add them back on. I don’t want to be in a position where something happens that changes the nature of our relationship with NAV Canada.”

“You can’t just snap your fingers and magically put a tower back on.”

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