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Bill's passage could save Sault Airport control tower

Sault Airport one of seven currently under review
Sault Ste. Marie Airport file photo (Darren Taylor/SooToday)

Windsor West MP Brian Masse, a New Democrat, introduced a private member's bill on Tuesday, which would provide the federal transport minister with the power to remove airports from NAV Canada studies to reduce or eliminate air traffic control services.

NAV Canada, which owns and operates Canada's civil air navigation system, announced, in Nov. 2020, the launch of a study considering the removal of control towers at seven airports across Canada, including the control tower at the Sault Ste. Marie Airport.

“This legislative change will allow the transport minister to take practical and decisive action to remove... airports from the NAV Canada study,” Masse stated in a news release.

“When NAV Canada announced this study, the transport minister stated he could not act to protect airports because of the law. With this legal change he will be able to save not only the airport in Windsor but airports across the country,” Masse wrote.

Terry Bos, president and CEO at the Sault Ste. Marie Airport Development Corporation (SSMADC), described the bill as “certainly interesting” in an email to SooToday.

“It would have been a nice tool for the government to have available when this started (however, I am) not sure what effect it would have had. It certainly would provide the government an opportunity to potentially change the course of action or defer such a review until times are normal (post-COVID),” Bos wrote.

“As for (Sault) MP Sheehan goes, we have discussed this and he is certainly supportive of ATC (air traffic control) being maintained here and has had conversations as to such with Minister Marc Garneau before his departure from Transport, and I suspect would have also had similar discussions with Minister Omar Alghabra (who succeeded Garneau as Transport Minister in Jan. 2021).”

NAV Canada’s review is due to be wrapped up next month and sent to Transport Canada, Bos told us.

The review of each of the seven airports will look at whether air traffic at those airports warrants having a control tower as opposed to an advisory service for pilots.

Other airports under NAV Canada review, apart from those in the Sault and Windsor, include those in St-Jean, Que., Regina, Sask., Fort McMurray, Alta., Prince George, B.C., and Whitehorse, Yukon.

The aviation industry, including the Sault airport, has been among the hardest hit as federal travel restrictions continue and public health officials discourage travelling during the pandemic.

In February, for example, the Sault Ste. Marie Airport reported record low passenger levels.

Passenger traffic in January dropped by more than 89 per cent from the previous year.

Also in January of this year, the airport announced a 41 per cent reduction in staff as flights were cut due to the ongoing pandemic.

“A strong system of airports is essential to supporting recovery from COVID-19 for our travel and tourism sector, as well as our trade-based regional and national economies,” Bos stated in a news release issued Feb. 9.

“Canada’s airports and our air sector partners want to play a leading role in this recovery but may not be able to effectively do so without intervention by government.”

“The airport will stay open regardless of what NAV Canada’s decision is. We’ve made a really strong case to keep the control tower. Sault College has major expansion plans that more than justify the need for a tower here. Although we have to go through the process, we think we’ve provided input that justifies maintaining the tower,” Bos told SooToday in February.

If the private member's bill is passed, it "will allow us all to focus on what matters at the moment, rebuilding and supporting our local economies to recover from the pandemic rather than spending our time defending against NAV Canada’s service reduction and cost-cutting initiatives that will ultimately damage a key piece of local infrastructure,” stated NDP MP Masse.

– SooToday