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Major milestone for General Aviation

 

On March 14th the Honourable John Baird, Minister of the Environment, announced, "The Government has concluded that decommissioning the airstrips would increase pilot risk and create legal uncertainties regarding the status of the airstrip(s)" and the "airstrip(s) will be maintained for emergency and diversionary landings".

He was, of course, referring to the Banff and Jasper airstrips. Elsewhere in this issue and on the COPA web site you can read the full text of the news release.

March 14, 2008 is a date to remember. This decision is a major milestone for General Aviation. Common sense has finally prevailed at the federal government level and the importance of General Aviation safety has been upheld, ironically without any help from Transport Canada.

I refer to this as a milestone rather than a win because there is still much to be accomplished before we can rest easy.

For 30 years Parks Canada has wanted to close these airstrips. In the 1980s the Alberta Aviation Council (now Aviation Alberta), with funding assistance from COPA, challenged Parks Canada along with the local flying clubs. In the 1990s COPA became directly involved and has carried forward the challenge, thanks to the Special Action Fund.

Then in 1997, a pivotal year in the struggle, our former government enacted legislation giving Parks Canada full control over airstrips within national parks. Known as the National Parks Aircraft Access Regulation, it originally included Banff and Jasper as two of nine airstrips authorized in various parks across Canada. However, by the time the regulation became law the Banff and Jasper airstrips had been removed from this authorized list.

Now, in order to carry out the Minister’s decision, Parks Canada has to amend the regulation to put Banff and Jasper back on the list of authorized airstrips. This will take time. In addition the Banff and Jasper park administrations have to make whatever changes they require in order to keep the airstrips available on a continuing basis.

We have travelled a long and arduous route to get to this milestone and the struggle really became intense after 1997. Many people and organizations across Canada have provided significant help.

Of course the local flying clubs in Banff and Jasper have been at the pointy end for the entire time and the individual pilots in those towns have been on the front line. And they will continue to be on the front line, for you can be sure our real opponents, the environmental groups, will not rest.

I want to thank all the current and past members of the Jasper Flying Club and the Banff Flying Club for their perseverance and for their unselfish dedication to the primary objective of keeping the airstrips open for emergency and diversionary use, even though it may have meant the loss of their own personal use of the airstrips.

Bryn Thomas in Jasper and Bill Clark in Banff have done a highly effective job of leading the local effort.

We could not have accomplished what we have without our members nationally. In preparing for the Air Safety Risk Assessment, as part of the Comprehensive Environmental Assessment, we asked members who had experienced emergency or diversionary landings at either airstrip to send us their story. Forty-five pilots from across Canada provided detailed reports of a time when they encountered severe adverse conditions in the mountain passes and truly needed either the Banff or Jasper airstrip.

For some it was abundantly clear the airstrips saved they lives. These reports played a vital roll during the Air Safety Risk Assessment.

As part of the Comprehensive Environmental Assessment Parks Canada conducted a public consultation in which the public was invited to write in with comments on the Environmental Assessment and Air Safety Risk Assessment reports. Our members played a key roll in this.

Parks Canada received a total of 1,512 submissions containing 4,363 specific comments. Of these 46% were from Alberta and B.C. with the remaining 54% from across Canada. Of the 1,512 submissions 1,490 or 98.5% did not support the proposed decommissioning of the airstrips.

When Parks Canada forwarded its final reports and public consultation results to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) they conducted their own public consultation. Again our members came through. Although CEAA did not make the exact results known, they did report that approximately 300 submissions were received and virtually all were against decommissioning of the airstrips.

I want to thank all COPA members who played a big part by taking the time to write in support of the Air Safety Risk Assessment and the public consultations.

Unfortunately Parks Canada ignored everything and in its final report to CEAA stated they would proceed with decommissioning, pending approval of the Environment Minister (to whom Parks Canada reports).

In order to insure a favourable outcome we then worked to make sure our MPs and the Environment Minister fully understood the seriousness of what Parks Canada was proposing. Thanks to the work of Bryn Thomas and Bill Clark the MPs for Jasper and Banff were fully on side with us.

We then engaged COPA members throughout Alberta and parts of B.C. to contact their MPs and brief them on the issue. The result was virtually unanimous support from our MPs.

Again I thank our members who stepped up and made those contacts. This was another vital link in the process.

Our efforts culminated in a meeting with the Environment Minister in which our concerns were made clear and the constructive recommendations we have been making all along were articulated.

Funding from the COPA Special Action Fund and COPA members working together, with the support of many other aviation organizations, has brought us to this milestone. Proof that working together we can make things happen. Stay tuned for further developments.

Meanwhile keep your prop spinning.