Northern airlines urge federal government to modernize northern runways
‘We might be one of the last countries in the world that is depending this much on gravel runways’: Air Inuit executive
Airports are a lifeline for northern communities and the federal government needs to prioritize them when doling out infrastructure funding, say members of an advocacy group that represents northern airlines.
“A safe and reliable air service across the North is not just a nice-to-have, it’s an essential [need],” said Aaron Speer, vice-president of flight operations for Canadian North.
He spoke to Nunatsiaq News from Ottawa, where he and others in the industry spoke with federal officials, including Northern Affairs Minister Daniel Vandal, about the need to improve airport infrastructure in the North.
Speer chairs the Northern Air Transport Association, known as NATA, a group made of 14 different air services that operate in the North, including Canadian North and Air Inuit.
The federal government has a pool of funding available for improving infrastructure nationwide. But Speer said population is one of the measurements that decides who receives funding, which puts northern Canada and its smaller population base at a disadvantage when it comes to getting money.
One of the major infrastructure issues on the association’s priority list is runways. All of Nunavut’s runways need improvements, with some dating back to the Second World War, according to the association.
“We might be one of the last countries in the world that is depending this much on gravel runways,” said Sebastian Michel, director of flight operations for Air Inuit.
“If there’s no investment in runways, some communities will simply lose [them].”
Gravel runways eventually erode away without intervention. Beyond that, Michel said, not all new aircraft are equipped to operate on gravel runways. If the federal government wants the airline industry to be more eco-friendly, it needs to invest in infrastructure that can accommodate a modernized fleet.
Runway length is also an issue. For example, Pangnirtung’s runway is so short that it limits the type of aircraft that can fly into the community, said Speer.
Association representatives also plan to talk with federal officials about improving lighting systems at airports, as many in the North are basic. That makes it challenging to take off or land in poor weather.
With climate change creating more extreme weather conditions, getting better lighting systems is important, Speer said.
“One of our concerns is that this is not something where you can wait for the problem to occur,” he said.
“We need to be proactive, be ready and have the solutions in place before the current infrastructure is not adequate.”
Another priority for the group while they’re in Ottawa includes finding a way to increase the number of local and Indigenous workers in the northern flying industry.
Currently, much of the training takes place in the south, so NATA representatives are looking to the federal government for help to bring training to the North, Speer said.
Nunatsiaq News reached out to Minister Vandal’s office for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.