Fort McMurray airport could lose air traffic controllers as NAV Canada begins review

·2 min read

Fort McMurray could see local air traffic controllers replaced as NAV Canada, a private entity tasked with operating Canada's civil air navigation system, considers multiple layoffs at seven airports across Canada.

The company is studying if air traffic controllers are still needed at airport towers in Fort McMurray, Whitehorse, Regina, Prince George, Sault Ste. Marie, Windsor, Ont. and St. Jean, Que. The controllers will be replaced with flight service specialists, which are cheaper, if the report concludes controllers are not needed.

A flight service secialist does not have the ability to control air traffic and keep planes separated while in the air or on the ground. Instead, they provide advice and information on weather, runway conditions and air traffic. Pilots then make their own decisions on how to keep planes a safe distance from each other.

RJ Steenstra, president and CEO of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority, said Thursday the potential changes bring serious safety risks. He also estimates eight to 12 air traffic controllers could lose their jobs locally if the cuts happen.

Transport Canada did not confirm how many people could lose their jobs across Canada if the cuts happen, but a September memo obtained by CBC News said 720 jobs, or 14 per cent of its workforce, could be let go.

“We have long and dark northern winters and having actual eyes and binoculars in the tower—communicating with maintenance and ground crews—is really important to us,” he said. “We don’t want to see any diminishment of safety at our airport.”

If the cuts happen, Steenstra said the airport would have to scale back services for safety reasons. This could result in more layoffs at the airport, which is already struggling financially.

Commercial flights have dropped to one-third they would usually be in a year. The airport authority has also seen drops of roughly 66 per cent in commercial traffic and 85 per cent in charter traffic.

Steenstra said the airport authority's leadership was caught off guard when told of the potential cuts. He also said there was no previous indication NAV Canada planned to conduct any service reviews.

“We’re already struggling,” he said. “I’m not going to sit idly by for circumstances that challenge our ability to regain our traffic.”

Sau Sau Liu, a spokesperson for Transport Canada, said the federal agency is aware of NAV Canada's review but any actions would need to be approved by Ottawa. She also said the federal government is aware commercial traffic has dropped across the country since COVID-19 restrictions began.

“No compromise to safety will be tolerated,” said Liu. “Transport Canada must ensure that any reduction or termination of service proposed maintains rigorous aviation safety standards.”

swilliscraft@postmedia.com

Sarah Williscraft, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today