Air ambulance changes have Peace River worried

Potential changes to air ambulance services has one northern community worried.

Officials from the town of Peace River met with Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman Wednesday to lay out those concerns.

The province is in the process of accepting proposals for the operation of air ambulance services across Alberta.

Peace River Mayor Tom Tarpey is concerned that replacing the current air ambulance provider, Northern Air, with another one could end scheduled flight service to the town.

Currently, there are five flights a week in and out of Peace River for business and personal travel.

The current front-runner in the province's search for air ambulance operators isn't prepared to run any scheduled service to the town, he said.

"If we lose scheduled air service, we lose access to federal funding for our airport infrastructure," he said.

Losing access to that funding would make the airport financially unsustainable, he said.

"We would be expecting the province to manage it for us."

Job losses in the community

Tarpey said if the town loses its scheduled daily air service, 45-55 jobs will be directly affected. He said the indirect economic impact would be even greater.

"The current scheduled air service runs, in recession years, about 6,000 passengers and, in good years, up to 12,000," he said. "Each of those passengers represents economic activity, whether it be tourism or business."

Tarpey believes the province's proposed 10-year contract for the air ambulance operator is too long.

"It creates a near-monopoly situation," he said. "In those 10 years, competition will dry up as will the capacity and experience in terms of creating a viable competition when it comes up for renewal."

Tarpey said if the current the front-runner in the air ambulance search is successful, it would operate nine of Alberta's 11 air ambulances.

That makes Albertans vulnerable, he said.

"If Transport Canada [was] to find some deficiencies, whether it were to be in their maintenance practices or some other safety concern, they could ground the entire fleet. So the province would be down to perhaps two air ambulances."

In a written statement provided to CBC, Hoffman said she was pleased to meet with municipal leaders from the Peace River region earlier this week and hear their concerns about air ambulance services.

"I assured them that AHS Air Ambulance will continue to operate out of Peace River," the statement reads.

"I know that AHS is working with local municipalities and any unsuccessful bidders and responding to any concerns they might have about the bidding process. We're all committed to ensuring a safe and effective air ambulance services continues to serve all Albertans."

nola.keeler@cbc.ca

@nolakeelerCBC