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Future of airports is up in the air, says advocacy group

Municipalities selling airports for redevelopment means loss of essential infrastructure, according to Airport Management Council of Ontario
Dryden Airport (1)
Ministry of Natural Resources base at the Dryden Regional Airport (Northern Ontario Business photo)

Ontario is on a growth curve, but there’s no room for airports in some communities.

“It’s a little bit of an oxymoron,” said Laura McNeice, CEO of the Airport Management Council of Ontario (AMCO).

With the provincial government incentivizing cash-starved municipalities to build more housing, those flat expanses of serviced airport land look awfully attractive to developers.

AMCO is red-flagging a disturbing trend in the last couple of years. Small municipal airports and aerodromes across Ontario are being sold or considered for sale to private developers as potential housing developments. 

McNeice points to airports in Wiarton, Owen Sound, Hanover-Saugeen, Tobermory and Wingham where this is happening.

A zoning amendment was made at the Carp airport last fall, near Ottawa, to build a residential subdivision. 

To McNeice, it's a crisis situation that calls into question whether municipalities and other higher orders of government overlook or recognize the value of these facilities in being essential infrastructure.

Many of these new private owners are still running them as airports, McNeice said, but without municipal control, there are no guarantees they will remain open in the long run for air traffic.

AMCO is looking to Queen’s Park to step up and offer assistance to municipalities to keep airports viable and operating.

“These airports are essential and they need protection. They provide so many services,” said McNeice.

In a recent news release, AMCO and the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association said airports and aerodromes shouldn’t be viewed by municipalities as a “drain on coffers,” but valued for the public services they provide in health-care connectivity with life-saving medical flights and as staging bases for search and rescue, policing and fire suppression. 

Local airports also facilitate maintenance and monitoring of hydroelectric stations and are tenants for government natural resources and forestry programming.

McNeice said municipalities have generally been hesitant to invest in the upkeep and development of their airports. 

They’re often viewed as profit generators when they should be regarded like any other piece of important public infrastructure, no different than a swimming pool, library, road or sewer network.

“You don’t expect roads to make money. This is transportation infrastructure," said McNeice.

Some municipally owned small and regional airports break even or make marginal profits on the revenue side. But, for many, there hasn’t been the post-pandemic surge in flight service and passenger volumes.

McNeice said declining volumes have been felt at airports in North Bay, Sudbury, Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie, the situation being exacerbated by an industry-wide pilot shortage.

“There’s been such a decimation of passenger numbers since COVID that flights haven’t returned. It makes it very challenging as well.”

North Bay’s Jack Garland Airport, for example, has been reduced to a single daily Air Canada flight to Toronto, whereas there were four daily flights pre-pandemic.

More recently, Perimeter Aviation of Winnipeg, the parent company of Bearskin Airlines, said declining ridership is prompting the air carrier to drop scheduled service to Dryden, Fort Frances and Kenora in northwestern Ontario.

McNeice calls that “a big kick to the region,” when it comes to attracting newcomers and business to the area.

“That was the only air service coming out of three airports. It leaves them high and dry."

Following years of provincial downloading, some towns in Northern Ontario have resorted to decertifying their airports as cost-saving measures. Since they no longer have regularly scheduled passenger air service, it makes sense to drop their Transportation Canada certification, and its costly standards, to become basic aerodromes.

“I’m sure that municipalities are just crunched for cash,” said McNeice, in pushing the need for government assistance.

Transport Canada’s Airports Capital Assistance Program (ACAP) program has often been criticized by airport operators as being severely underfunded. That fund is available for certified airports handling at least 1,000 scheduled passengers a year and fewer than 525,000. But it's not accessible by 40 to 50 smaller airports in Ontario, she said. 

AMCO is turning to the Ontario government for help.

“There is no funding structure from the province for airports,” said McNeice, who is spearheading a provincial airports assistance program.

A provincial cabinet shuffle last year disrupted AMCO’s discussions with former transportation minister Caroline Mulroney. More recently, AMCO has sent a letter to every MPP and Premier Doug Ford.

In their letter to Ford, AMCO recommends municipalities not sell their airports, but also recognizes that these facilities need funding. One recommendation is to implement a provincial funding program that addresses the needs of airports that do not qualify for federal ACAP funding.

How that program would take shape hasn’t been determined yet, said McNeice.

“We just don’t want to see the trend continue. These (airports) should remain as public assets.”

AMCO is also advocating for the restoration of the Ontario Air Advisory Panel, a liaison panel for aviation-related companies and organizations to meet with the MTO and Ontario on issues and matters concerning airport operators and keep an open line of communication.

The panel last met on semi-regular basis with then-transportation minister Kathleen Wynne.

Northern Ontario Business reached out to the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) for comment regarding the establishment of a provincial airport fund and what can be done to keep airports sustainable.

A ministry spokesperson replied by email that AMCO's letter has been received and is being reviewed. 

“MTO is committed to working with our federal and municipal partners to ensure support for our municipal and regional airports so they can continue to connect and serve local communities.

“Ontario owns and operates 29 airports which primarily serve First Nation communities throughout Northern Ontario and play an important role in supporting their access to essential goods, services, as well as transportation.

“At the same time our government recognizes that the need to build at least 1.5 million homes by 2031 is greater than ever. We remain committed to working constructively with our municipal partners to deliver on our shared housing goals.”