(Sanjay Maru/CBC - image credit)
The potential loss of the air traffic control tower at Windsor International Airport could have an effect on students training to be pilots at the University of Windsor.
NAV Canada is continuing to review a number of smaller airports, including Windsor's, to determine if it should eliminate the control towers to save money. The mayor, the local business community and aviation experts in the area have been fighting the review, saying Windsor needs the safety and security of a tower to keep business moving.
Now, staff and students in the University of Windsor's aeronautics leadership program are speaking out as well.
"Air traffic controllers are amazing. They tell you exactly where you need to go, especially if there's heavy traffic," said Tapas Modi, a third-year student in the University of Windsor's aeronautics leadership program.
NAV Canada is considering replacing air traffic controllers with flight service specialists — who cost less to employ. They do not have the power to control air traffic and keep planes separated while in flight or on the ground. Instead, they provide advisory services and information about weather, runway conditions and air traffic, leaving it up to pilots to keep a safe distance from other planes.
At the University of Windsor, flight students may find themselves manning a plane within just the first few months of the program — with the assistance of air traffic control guiding them along. If the air traffic control tower at Windsor International Airport were to be replaced by a flight services station, Modi said he'd be "scared" for first-year students.
"This one time, I was up doing circuits and there were two different airlines coming in ... Air traffic control did a fantastic job of separating the traffic and they did a fantastic job of making sure that I would not go anywhere near them and they would not be anywhere near me," said Modi, recalling an incident from his first year in the program.
"I had to ask them if they could vector me back to the airport, because I think I was up by Belle River. That's pretty far out from the airport when you're just doing circuits. So I asked, 'Can you vector me back in?' They were happy to do so. That's a pretty big plus point of having a control tower — is the traffic separation that they're able to provide."
As part of the university's aeronautics leadership program, students work to become licensed in communicating with air traffic control. Program coordinator Tamsin Bacon said she's aware that other flight schools operate in uncontrolled airports but the tower is a draw for Windsor's program.
"It's certainly a perk for us to have our students coming in and have an opportunity to learn how to have that dialogue because they're trying to be commercial pilots," said Bacon. "Having this opportunity to train and be able to talk to air traffic control is is a great thing for our students and something that would be missed."
While the academic portion of the university's aviation program is done on its main campus, the flight portion is done at Windsor International Airport and is coordinated by Journey Air — a local flight school.
Journey Air did not respond to CBC News' request for comment, but Bacon said she's been assured that the school will find alternative ways of teaching students how to communicate with air traffic control if YQG's tower were to shut down.
But those in the program say losing the tower also poses a safety risk for students. According to Bacon, the complexity of Windsor's airspace make the need for an air traffic control tower far greater here than in other cities.
"With Detroit right across the river, as well as the [Windsor] Flying Club and Journey Air training students right there at the airport, it's a busy environment," she said.
"Our students are currently learning how to communicate with the tower when they go to the runway, take off and figure out where they are in terms of landing. So that would obviously change in terms of how our students operate in that environment."
Of course, there are many pilots-in-training who have learned to fly at uncontrolled airports. But according to Modi, Windsor International Airport since it's in a rare spot of being situated close to airports in the United States.
"It gets really busy on some days with the amount of international flights and domestic flights that fly into there," said Modi. "If Windsor doesn't have provided separation, it's a potential hazard that we're looking at."
Mayor finally speaks with NAV Canada
Meanwhile, in a statement to CBC News, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said he was able to secure a meeting with NAV Canada's vice president — something he's been asking for since Dec. 11.
"We discussed the poor job that NAV Canada staff have put forward during this aeronautical study, since day one. I was pleased that Mr. Girard acknowledged that his team could have done a lot better when communicating with YQG and other local leaders," said Dilkens.
Dilkens added NAV Canada officials acknowledged the layoff notice sent Jan. 14 to workers in Windsor's air traffic control tower — which stated the company's intention is to close the tower due to the impact of the pandemic and replace it with a flight service station.
According to the mayor, Nav Canada "admitted" the letter sent a signal that a final decision regarding the tower's fate had been made but assured YQG that was not the case.
"Unfortunately, they've really squandered a lot of good-will and will need to take steps to build back that trust."