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Cost creep gives me the creeps

 

Two significant changes are about to occur in the way we get the information many of us need for safe flight.

Like most aviation advances these days, these changes are good news, bad news stories. The bad being, there are hidden costs involved which will drive the cost of private aviation even higher.

I will use two examples to illustrate how aviation is headed in the wrong direction in Canada, I will offer an opinion as to why this is occurring, and I will explain how I believe we can recover this spiral.

Over the past few years, I have lobbied Transport Canada and NAV CANADA to follow the initiative in the U.S. to put airport diagrams on the web. There is evidence in the U.S. that the free access to these diagrams is the single-most contributor to reducing runway incursions.

The diagrams were traditionally available to IFR pilots who purchased approach publications, but it was considered unreasonable for VFR pilots to have to purchase these publications just to get the diagrams. So, the U.S. government decided to release the diagrams, and pilots flying in the U.S. are encouraged to go to various websites, such as www.naco.faa.gov/ap_diagrams.asp, where they can view and download taxi diagrams for free.

In the U.S., it was relatively easy to make the decision to provide the diagrams because the government held the keys to the data and it was considered public information there. In Canada, however, we live in a cost recovery, user pay era. Here lies the first good news, bad news story.

While the U.S. piles up higher and higher deficits, Canada has managed to produce significant and growing surpluses. That is good news, but it comes at a cost, such as the “free” provision of airport diagrams.

The government’s publishing arm, NRCAN, produces all of the aeronautical publications that we use. With the privatization of the air navigation system, NAV CANADA is responsible for aeronautical information, and they in turn sub-contract to NRCAN to provide it.

So, when I pushed for the diagrams, I had to work my way through a maze of fingers pointing at other fingers. The logical place to start, I thought, was with Transport Canada. After all, they have safety responsibilities and I thought they could just arrange with their sister department, NRCAN, to release the diagram. Not that simple.

Although Transport Canada agreed that airport diagrams on the web would have a positive effect, they had no interest in helping to arrange for free access to the diagrams. Go see NAV CANADA, they said. Transport’s only role, they said, was as regulator.

Although NAV CANADA agreed the diagrams would be a useful tool, their initial reaction was one of, “Ooh, that would be an expensive tool to develop, and someone has to pay.”

Around the time this discussion was taking place, I discovered there could be no cost to making the diagrams available online because they already were there. NRCAN has a web site http://aerod.nrcan.gc.ca, but access is restricted to government employees and NAV CANADA.

I wondered why NAV CANADA should have free access when the remainder of the public should not. This question remains unanswered.

The AeroD site contains all of the pubs we could need, some in digitized format, and others as pdf files, such as the CFS, enroute charts, approach plates and airport diagrams. It is conveniently organized, I am told, so that individual airport diagrams can be searched by ICAO identifier, airport name etc. That’s the good news story.

After a significant delay, NAVCAN finally agreed to provide the diagrams on their web site free of charge. That is almost a good news story, but unfortunately, NAVCAN has to pay NRCAN for the diagrams.

NRCAN is charging several thousands of dollars to package the diagrams (whatever that means) and then an annual charge of tens of thousands. John Crichton, the President of NAVCAN, claims the cost is so small, it will hardly have any effect, and therefore he has graciously agreed to provide them for free.

But the money will have to come from somewhere. Since NAVCAN has to recover all of its costs, this will be used as an excuse for a future fee increase aircraft owners will pay. That’s the bad news.

This is experience gives me the creeps, because not only will we pay again for something that the tax payer (us) already paid for, it illustrates how anything we may want to improve safety comes with a cost which we will have to ultimately pay.

Another good news, bad news story is the AIP moving to the web, as explained in the AIC in the January update to the AIP and in the Newsletter section of this newspaper.

COPA has been pushing for years for an alternative to the cumbersome AIP. It is expensive to produce in hard copy and so time-consuming to keep up-to-date that relatively few pilots actually have a current AIP.

Transport finally agreed to put the AIP online, calling it an AIM. That’s the good news. Transport's costs will go down substantially when they go online, but our fees will not be reduced because they claim that we are getting it free now (we used to think the $55 licence renewal fee covered this cost - but no).

And for anyone who wants a hard copy other than downloading and printing it themselves, there will be a charge, although the amount has yet to be determined.

Maybe that is not so much bad news for those who think the online version is a good thing. I think it is good because the online version is much easier to search and keeping it up-to-date is only a click away.

But there is more to this story. NAVCAN will take over certain aspects related to aeronautical information and produce its own AIP, called AIP Canada (ICAO), to fulfill an international commitment to provide such information. I expect there will be some duplication of information between the AIM and the AIP but hopefully there will not be a waste of effort in this regard.

Although the AIP will also be available free online, NAVCAN will have to recover the costs of producing and updating the AIP from somewhere. Guess where.

These two changes may seem petty in the grand scheme of things, but they add to other cost creeps that we have experienced, such as the introduction of the NAVCAN fee when the government divested of the air navigation system, even though we continue to pay the same fuel excise taxes that were our contribution prior to divesting of the ANS.

Government divestment of most airports created another cost creep. When Transport Canada owned the airports, a fuel concession fee of 5 cents per litre on avgas was in lieu of landing fees. The fuel concession fee remains at many airports, but they have also introduced landing fees, in essence double taxing us. And the list goes on.

When all of the individual costs increases are added up, it is becoming a significant impediment to the growth, if not survival of our sector.

In my opinion, the government should be concerned with such rampant cost creep, in the interest of keeping the national air transportation system intact. So, why would the government permit cost creep to get out of hand?

The answer is simple. There is absolutely no policy for non-airline aviation in Canada. There is an air policy branch at Transport and there are documents that address air policy, but none of the people or documents deal with anything other than airline.

So, with a rudderless (air)ship, our sector is left to fend for itself, wandering aimlessly to some end point of which no one knows.

About the only place I can find anything that comes close to a policy for non-commercial aviation is the National Airports Policy, which is a disaster for non-airline airports. The policy was introduced in the 1990s under the then Transport Minister, David Collenette.

From day one I have tried to educate the Minister and his staff about how that policy abandoned most airports and destroyed any focus on the national air transportation infrastructure outside of the 26 major airports serving the airlines.

The policy continues to proudly state, the system of airports is overbuilt, and the government is happy to stand by while the new owners of the system, mostly municipalities, either try to cope or come to the conclusion, they do not want their airport. That’s the bad news.

One of the gestures of Collenette on his way out was to bow to our pressure and he agreed to look at the plight of small airports. He commissioned a Regional and Small Airports Study, to which COPA provided our views.

The study concluded that airports were having difficulty making ends meet, as we expected. But since the narrow terms of reference for the study prevented the team from making any recommendations, the study was a waste of time.

Enter the new Transport Minister, Jean-C Lapierre. One of the first items brought before the new Minister by COPA was a plea to keep the report from just being another document collecting dust on a shelf. We provided the recommendations that were missing from the report, including a call for expanding the criteria for the Airport Capital Assistance Program, a source of funding which to this point of time is only available to airports with scheduled air service.

Lapierre responded positively: “Allow me to assure you that (COPA’s recommendations) will be given every consideration. At a meeting of the federal-provincial/territorial Council of Ministers Responsible for Transportation and Highway Safety, Transport Canada agreed to take the lead in developing, along with the provinces and territories, objective criteria and evaluation grids to determine the mission of small airports (tourism, cargo, regional development, etc.) and in identifying options for future action. The department’s Policy branch will be conducting this follow-up to the Regional and Small Airports Study.”

This is good news. The tasking of the Policy branch presents an opportunity for me to press for a broader examination of  air policy and I am now in the process of establishing a dialogue with the Minister in hopes of creating, once and for all, a comprehensive air policy which includes non-airline aviation.

This policy would address, in addition to how many airports are required to serve the needs of the non-airline traveling public, flight training, medevac, tourism and encouraging people to take up aviation as a career in order to populate the vacancies that are sure to happen as our population ages.

COPA has drafted a general aviation policy as a first step in the process, and we have sent it to the Minister for his review and action. We are offering to work hand-in hand at every step of the policy development, so that there will finally be a direction for non-airline aviation in Canada.

It seems hard to believe after all these years and with all of the times aviation has proven to be vitally important in this vast country, we are just now starting to think about the extent to which it should be supported.

Perhaps this is just an inevitable outcome of the government placing all its effort on cost reduction, at the expense of some fundamentally required areas, such as aviation. But one thing is for sure, we cannot afford to continue down the path toward new costs and cost increases.

It gives me the creeps just thinking about where we would be as a nation if this is permitted to continue.