Northern Air ends service in Peace River

The Peace River Airport has one less service after Northern Air announced it is leaving Jan. 1.

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

Northern Air will be ending its scheduled passenger flights to Edmonton as of Jan. 1, effectively ending all passenger flights to and from Peace River.

The company already ended its scheduled flights to Calgary in November 2018.

The company issued an official statement Dec. 16 after rumours began circulating on social media.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there and I find it typically comes from a small group of people who don’t seem to have the facts,” says Northern Air president Nathan Hilman.

“It provides a bit of a venue for folks and there is not a lot of accountability.”

Northern Air operates out of several provinces across Canada and offers charter flights, scheduled flights, air ambulance, fixed base operations, aircraft management and aircraft maintenance.

In the official statement, Hilman says the company is not leaving Peace River but as part of the company’s diversification efforts Northern Air is continually analyzing its business segments to determine where resources are invested.

“We’ve worked tirelessly to keep these routes open and are disappointed that this is no longer a service that we can offer,” Hilman says.

Hilman says in the statement the passenger service was put in jeopardy when Alberta Health Services [AHS] conducted what his company considers to be a flawed request for proposal process and awarded the air ambulance contract to CanWest Air in 2017.

“The air ambulance contract provided certain synergies that helped support scheduled flight services, especially during the economic downturn which inevitably resulted in fewer passengers travelling. For over a decade, the ability to find efficiencies in offering both services kept the scheduled flights going in Peace River even in poor economic cycles,” says Hilman.

Northern Air contested the air ambulance contract award by filing an application for judicial review of the RFP process in September 2017. Despite what the statement calls attempts by AHS to strike the judicial review, the hearing is scheduled for September 2020.

“The RFP process lacked integrity and this is about ensuring our government is carrying out procurement processes fairly and transparently – it’s about public trust,” Hilman says. “AHS and the previous government have gone to great lengths, at taxpayers’ expense, in their efforts to stop the review from happening.”

AHS has already faced other legal challenges over the RFP process from Integra Air in Medicine Hat after CanWest was also awarded the air ambulance contract there. When the contract was awarded, CanWest did not have infrastructure in either locations, leading both companies to call the RFP a “sham.”

CanWest in turn blamed the Town of Peace River for preventing the company from obtaining hangar space at the Peace River Airport.

Integra Air has since shut down. The airline ceased operations including air ambulance services on Aug. 31, 2018.

“We want to be clear, the decision to discontinue scheduled flights for Peace River is a direct result of the loss of the air ambulance contract and exacerbated by the continued downward trend of the Alberta economy,” Hilman says.

Northern Air thanks the Town of Peace River, Northern Sunrise County, M.D. of Peace, Town of Grimshaw and County of Northern Lights for their support of the scheduled flight service over the past few years.

The Town of Peace River issued a formal request for proposals in August in order to find options for managing the airport, which has run at a deficit since 1996 despite various different funding and operations management models. All of the partner municipalities are involved in evaluating proposals.

However, others blame the Peace River mayor and council for the loss of scheduled passenger services.

Bob Blayone posted statements to various Facebook groups on behalf of the Peace Region Development Committee.

“Very early on, we identified indicators which pointed towards this outcome, the loss of air passenger service,” Blayone says.

“Upon attempting to lend our guidance, we were left feeling very frustrated and disappointed with the lack of action, vision, urgency and support of all the regions municipal councils, with the Town of Peace River proving to be the most difficult. The treatment of certain tenants at Peace River Airport has been completely unacceptable.”

Blayone says the committee will once again approach local municipalities in hopes of convincing them to form a Part 9 corporation to run the airport.

“Only this path will ensure that our airport along with emergency and medical services are not jeopardized,” Blayone says.

“Rest assured, we are continuing to work on solutions to solve this situation. That began many months ago when we met with an alternative airline company and also recently spoke to another air passenger provider. Those companies are definitely interested in taking over passenger service at Peace River Airport. In fact, they fly over Peace River almost on a daily basis.”

The committee previously approached funding municipalities by making presentations at their council meetings in hopes of gathering them together at a proposed October meeting to be mediated by Peace River MLA Dan Williams.

The committee asked for the RFP process to be abandoned in favour of the local municipalities taking over both funding and operations instead.

The partnering local municipalities all declined to meet with PRDC outside of council meetings because of the RFP process, saying they would wait for the results of the RFP.

The results of the RFP will be announced sometime in the new year, according to Peace River CAO Chris Parker.

There is no indication the PRDC or the airlines they say they have spoken with have submitted a proposal as part of the formal RFP process.

Committee member Cheryl Fitchie says there is no requirement to submit to the RFP to provide scheduled flights, and the committee has been looking for solutions since before the RFP was announced.

“We had suggestions around increasing revenue whereby CanWest would have purchased their fuel from NAC, get the airport lots ready so we don’t lose the next Alpine Heli opportunity that comes along, keep Advanced Paramedic Ltd. [APL] as a tenant so they continue paying rent to the town and many other examples,” she says.

APL’s Stephen Woodburn says he is very discouraged with the Peace River mayor, council and CAO.

“The airport issue has been terribly mismanaged and I unfortunately had a ringside seat throughout all of it,” Woodburn says.

“APL is a mid-size Peace River employer [108 staff]. APL was evicted from the Peace River Airport for reasons unjustifiable.

“Mayor Tarpey is well aware of my intentions to invest $800,000 into the Peace River Airport by constructing a hangar. [We] were not treated fairly in terms of our land lease. We didn’t experience any support from the Town of Peace River in our development plans – just obstacles or silence. Parker worked hard to ‘find’ a reason and terminated my land lease. Looking back, it has been a blessing,” he adds

Woodburn says he has been forced to relocate his business to Grande Prairie.

“If we wanted a hangar for our aircraft, we had to move out of Peace River. As a result, we are overjoyed with the way the Grande Prairie Airport has welcomed and treated us. Grande Prairie is open for business,” Woodburn says.

“I will not do any business with the Town of Peace River on any level going forward. If a local home grown boy cannot be treated fairly doing business in his home town, who can? Peace River is closed for business.”

However, Town of Peace River CAO Chris Parker says Woodburn has clearly not been evicted since he still has a hangar at the airport and is selling it.

“We’ve done our best to make leases fair for all tenants at the airport across the board,” Parker says.

Asked whether Peace River is closed for business, Parker says, “Not at all.”

“During the air ambulance RFP we warned AHS and the public that this was a possible outcome,” says Parker.

“This basically is an AHS problem. They created it. They made their bed.”

However, Parker says, “Progress is being made on securing a more sustainable operating model for the airport.”

Councillors from the Town of Peace River met with the airport funding partners, M.D. of Peace, Town of Grimshaw, County of Northern Lights, and Northern Sunrise County to review their options from the RFP process on Nov. 21.

“We have looked at a bunch of new innovative ways of doing things and this RFP has really opened our eyes,” Parker says.

“I believe people will be very pleased the options that we have come up with through the RFP.”

Parker says the Town welcomes feedback and may also be formally seeking more feedback in the new year.

In the Town of Peace River’s official statement on the end of Northern Air’s scheduled flights, the Town highlights the importance of passenger service to maintaining airport funding.

“Scheduled passenger service is important for the Peace River Regional Airport as it helps us secure funding from the federal government for capital projects and upkeep, through the Airport’s Capital Assistance Program,” the Town writes.

“With this announcement from Northern Air, the Town will be looking into alternate funding options and evaluating the impacts on our ACAP funding, which accounts for approximately $1.1 million a year in capital funding. We are working on our contingency plan, we have been and continue to actively work towards bringing in a new scheduled service provider.

“Despite these changes the Peace River Regional Airport remains a valuable asset for the region, providing a base of operations for wildfire and air ambulance services and will continue to operate, currently four out five of the major businesses support provincial operations. Our immediate and long-term number one priority is to keep this valuable asset open and operational.”

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