Flying in a vacuum

Kevin Psutka


Our system of airports and aerodromes is in trouble and this has a direct bearing on the future of General Aviation. The following is an analogy I use to illustrate the predicament.

The space shuttle has two methods of controlling its attitude – conventional control surfaces for flying in the atmosphere and an orbital manoeuvring system for use in space. Both of these systems are needed for the shuttle to safely return from space.

As the space shuttle prepares for reentry, one of the checks consists of moving all control surfaces to ensure that they will function after re-entry. When the surfaces are moved, of course there is no change in the trajectory. This control system is useless in space. If the orbital manoeuvring system is not available, the shuttle will continue on a random path until eventually burning up in an uncontrolled re-entry.

General Aviation (GA) is like the space shuttle. The National Airports Policy (NAP) [] which in 1994 set the stage for the demise of the national system of airports, effectively launched our shuttle on a strange mission with uncertainty about a safe return.

Our future is uncertain because of the lack of a policy for how many airports we need in Canada to keep our sector viable.

Essentially, the NAP launched GA without an orbital manoeuvring system. Try as best we can to move the control surfaces, nothing is happening. Why is this so, how did we get into this predicament and what can be done?

Successive Transport Ministers have stood behind several key statements in the National Airports Policy: “Much of the Canadian transportation system is overbuilt: 94 per cent of all air passengers and cargo use only 26 of 726 airports.” This in effect says that all the feds should concern themselves with are the 26 major airports. This of course is a fundamental flaw of the Policy.

The Policy goes on to say: “The federal government will be offering the ownership and operation of regional/local airports to local entities. These entities can better determine and provide the level of service needed by the local community.” The flaw in this statement is that it does not ensure that decisions made by one community are in the best interest of retaining a system of airports to serve all of Canada and the entire spectrum of aviation. COPA has been involved in several issues at regional airports where it is apparent that our needs, as part of the local community, are not being met.

Regarding how airports will be managed, the Policy states that “Owners of regional and local airports will be free to decide their own preferred management options in accordance with community needs.” This is a key statement because it assumes that the community understands the value of its airport, which is frequently not the case.

There is no longer any sense of a national system, at least beyond the 26 major airports that the government still owns, and as transitional funding runs out and 10-year commitments to retain the airports expire, many communities are examining their options, including distancing themselves from their transportation asset.

Regarding small airports, the Policy states: “There is no rationale for continued federal involvement in these airports... Each community will be in a position to determine the future role of its airport.” That is a profound statement in which the feds believe that there is no value in the thousands of airports that link our nation together by providing the only means of transportation, training for future pilots and mechanics, medevac service and a myriad of other social, business and recreation services. This profound statement was not consulted with anyone in the aviation industry.

There are some promising words for some small airports: “Several of the larger international airports within the National Airports System group are complemented by “satellite” airports. These airports help ensure the safe and efficient operation of the larger international airports they serve by diverting small, general aviation (recreational and training aircraft) away from the larger airport.” But then the Policy goes on to say: “Small airports that are satellites of international airports will be part of airport authorities operating the larger airports, with the understanding that operational assistance will be phased out in five years. If the airport authority is not interested in operating the satellite airport(

s) , the airport(s) will be placed in the appropriate airport category and handled accordingly.” So, while the policy acknowledges the importance of satellite airports, it sets the stage for abandoning them.

Starting to feel like we are drifting helplessly through space?

Let’s look at what has happened in the16 years since the National Airports Policy was released. Most airport authorities have walked away from their satellite airports – the NAP permitted and even expected this.

In several articles we have highlighted significant issues in Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal, where very significant GA airports will likely be closed because of a lack of direction. Many regional airports have introduced unreasonable fees and some managers are trying to make “excess lands” available for other uses by encouraging GA to leave.

There are 730 airports (licensed aerodromes) and thousands of aerodromes in Canada. Airlines serve only about 80.

The vast majority of Canada is still only accessible by small aircraft and small aircraft comprise over 90 per cent of the fleet. From the day that the National Airports Policy was released, I could not understand why the feds would walk away from the vast majority of Canada’s aviation infrastructure that is essential for the vast majority of Canadian aviation.

GA is drifting through space on a random course toward a destructive re-entry.

So how do we change the course of our shuttle?

A new policy is necessary to ensure that GA is acknowledged for the roles that it fulfills as a breeding ground for pilots and mechanics and for the myriad of other functions that it serves, including as a mode of transportation.

A GA policy is like our shuttle’s orbital maneuvering system. Through development of this GA policy it will become apparent that the National Airports Policy is flawed. We have to get back on the ground, reassess the National Airports Policy and then relaunch GA on a more certain and better mission.

COPA has had difficulty convincing the policy folks at Transport Canada that we need a GA policy. The reason for their reluctance is that the government does not appreciate the role that GA plays in our economy and hence they do not feel the need for protecting and encouraging this sector.

We all know that GA is a multi-billion dollar contributor but we have no proof, at least that the politicians will understand.

Collecting economic data on GA is the key to the GA Policy, which in turn is the key to the desperately needed review of the National Airports Policy. Or using the shuttle analogy, economic data is the fuel for our orbital manoeuvring system.

About a year and a half ago, COPA convinced Transport Canada (TC) to work with us to collect economic data on General Aviation (personal, corporate, flight training, air taxi etc). But we also need fuel for our orbital manoeuvring system.

In several articles and presentations we have highlighted the TC system for collecting data - The electronic Collection of Air Transportation Statistics (eCATS) [], which has been expanded from its original role for collecting airline data to include GA aircraft. So far, the response from our sector has not been encouraging.

We need all aircraft owners to help us develop our economic footprint. The data will be used to fuel a GA policy (our orbital manoeuvring system) in order to guide us to a safe re-entry, from which we can review the National Airports Policy and ensure that the next launch will not be so hazardous for our health.

I have been in this business long enough to know that GA is headed for an uncontrolled burn up unless we perform these tasks. It would truly be a shame to lose many key GA airports in this country that remains so dependent on GA to connect it together.

We need everyone in GA to help us recover from the uncontrollable trajectory on which the National Airports Policy has sent us.