County raises alarm about possible loss of air traffic services at Peace River airport

Northern Sunrise County is raising the alarm over the possible loss of air traffic services at the Peace River airport. Loss of service woud be an economic blow to the region.

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

The Peace River airport is facing the potential loss of its air traffic services.

Since fall, NAV Canada has been conducting studies in High Level and Peace River to assess the requirement for the provision of air traffic and aviation weather services.

The private non-profit federal company has also announced service reviews for multiple other air traffic control towers across Canada in communities such as Fort McMurray, Prince George, Regina, Sault Ste. Marie, Whitehorse and Windsor Tower, and is closing a control tower in St. Jean, Quebec.

The service reviews of the towers follow NAV Canada’s cuts to 14 per cent of its workforce in September 2020.

In a confidential memo to staff obtained by CBC News, Ben Girard, Nav Canada’s vice-president and chief of operations, told air traffic controllers that the company has seen a $518 million drop in revenue and staff should expect layoffs.

In Peace River, NAV Canada says total aircraft movements were down to 14,789 in 2019, compared to a total of 16,256 aircraft movements in 2018 and 16,977 movements in 2017.

Scheduled air service ended in Peace River in early 2020.

In an e-mail to Northern Sunrise County council dated Dec. 12, Rebecca Joe says, “I am writing to you as I am very concerned about the potential loss of NAV Canada Peace River Flight Safety Services. A year ago NAV Canada had big renovation plans for their Peace River facility. Now due to COVID they are actively seeking closure. With a vaccine becoming available, hopefully this pandemic and economic crisis will turn around in the near future.

“NAV Canada pays rent to the airport and doesn’t cost our community through taxes. Our community has had FSS for many years. They not only provide service to Peace River, but Dawson Creek 24/7 and Fort McMurray at night,” Joe says.

She adds she has a contract with NAV Canada that is her only reliable, steady income while also being flexible enough to allow her to keep her other job doing mobile drug and alcohol testing.

“It’s through our LTD company, so I’m also able to keep our welding business operational on the side,” she says.

“This is just my story, everyone at NAV has a story, these are people’s livelihoods at risk, which of course affects their families too. Peace River keeps taking economic hits by businesses leaving here, often to do business in other communities, such as Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie. This will have a detrimental affect on not only its FSS employees, but ultimately the community and its future.”

Joe says one of the current FSS staff has been with NAV Canada for over 30 years.

Northern Sunrise County reviewed the letter from Joe at their final regular council meeting in December.

Reeve Carolyn Kolebaba says Peace River CAO Chris Parker has had three meetings with NAV Canada to date, and they haven’t made any decisions.

The aeronautical study includes formal stakeholder and customer consultations “to determine if any customer impacts exist, and what mitigations may be required in the event that it is recommended to make changes to the provision of air traffic and aviation weather services at Peace River.”

The study is supposed to be finalized in early 2021 and then sent to the executive management for review and approval before being sent to Transport Canada for a safety oversight review by spring.

“I think if we show a force in the region that we are all behind this then maybe they might think differently,” says Kolebaba.

Councillor Norm Duval raises some doubts about the consultation process.

“We’re obviously not being talked to, we’re being reached out to by an employee.” he says.

“As a former employee of NAV Canada and flight services in Fort Simpson I recognize what they’re going through,” says Councillor Dan Boisvert.

Boisvert says losing air traffic services would be a loss to the aviation industry and a loss to the community of good paying jobs.

However, he says it would not necessarily impact any medical services.

“Slave Lake is operated out of Whitecourt, Peace River operates Dawson Creek and overnights for Fort Mac.”

“These are not air traffic controls, these are flight services, one step lower than that, but all of it hurts the system,” Duval says. “It’s a centralization and reduction of service to local. It would be a missed opportunity to not support this organization and encourage our neighbours to support them as well.”

After discussing the issue, Northern Sunrise County sent a letter dated Dec. 17 to NAV Canada CEO Neil Wilson.

The letter states, “Northern Sunrise County supports the Peace River Regional Airport financially and is dedicated to ensuring the continued operations of the airport. When we heard about the potential loss of Flight Safety Services, we took this very seriously and would ask you to reconsider this decision.”

The letter continues.

“The Peace River Regional Airport is a hub to the whole northern area of Alberta, as well as the Peace River Regional District in northeastern British Columbia and is extremely important to the economic viability of our region.”

Peace River’s town council reviewed the the NSC letter for information at their regular council meeting Jan. 11.

A new Part 9 non-profit organization with a board of local businessmen legally took over operations of the airport from the Town of Peace River on Dec. 15 and was not legally able to take part in the consultation process until then.

NAV Canada is also going through a management transition. CEO Neil R. Wilson is retiring as president and CEO of the federal non-profit effective Jan. 31, 2021 and is being replaced by Raymond G. Bohn on Feb. 1, 2021, meaning it is unlikely any final review and decisions will be made until then.

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