The Kitimat Northern Sentinel has learned that Nav Canada will be suspending its overnight air navigation services at 18 air traffic service facilities, including the Northwest Regional Airport (YXT) in Terrace.
Eleven of the closures are in B.C., while Newfoundland has two and Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan each have one. Suspensions include air traffic control towers, flight service stations (FSS) and locations which receive remote airport advisory services. In the case of YXT, the airport will have its FSS suspended overnight between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Nav Canada has said reductions will begin in the next week and are scheduled to last for at least 120 days, “subject to prevailing conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
With this in mind, YXT manager Carman Hendry said that flight services specialists who work out of the FSS are slightly different than an air traffic controller operating out of something like Victoria International Airport (YYJ). While an air traffic controller controls the movement of aircrafts, flight services specialists advise airport conditions for the region to pilots flying in the area. “An air traffic controller tells the pilot what he has to do,” explained Hendry. “A flight service specialist tells him what’s going on in the area and then he makes a decision.”
Hendry said there are currently no commercial airliners running flights to the airport between these hours and that the only aircrafts which could be affected by the closure, in the sense they would not be able to communicate directly with a flight services specialist, would be a medevac or itinerant traffic (anything that isn’t an airline on a schedule: helicopters, corporate flights, etc.) coming in during these hours. He said medevac numbers can be somewhat sporadic but that when the annual figures are averaged the airport sees 1.5 a day, for everything from patient transfers to life-threatening emergencies.
It’s unclear whether COVID-19 and Mills Memorial Hospital in Terrace’s recent designation as a primary care centre for the treatment of critically-ill patients with the virus will have a significant impact on the total number of medevacs coming through the airport.
When asked about these hypothetical late-night flights, Hendry explained there are procedures in place that pilots have to follow at other airports in the situation where they are attempting to land without FSS support. “Definitely everybody needs to be more alert, that’s for sure,” he said.
In a May 5 release detailing the changes Nav Canada said effected airports will remain open and aircraft will continue to be able to land and depart. In addition, the company said any site that has had its overnight air traffic services impacted will have a number of enhanced services available for pilots. This includes communication capability during all phases of flight, via flight information centers (FICs) or area control centers (ACCs) and an aircraft’s pilots. “This will maintain communication between pilots and the respective FIC and/or ACC in order to provide current and forecast weather, NOTAM, IFR approach and departure clearances,” the company said, adding that communication coverage exists either to or below circuit altitude, with most sites having coverage to the ground.
The release adds that affected airports will also have, at a minimum, hourly weather updates on wind, temperature, dew point and altimeter information.
However Hendry said they won’t include other things. “There’s nobody that’s going to say ‘hey, there’s fog … nothing like that,” he said. “There wouldn’t be any visibility reports, there wouldn’t be any precipitation [reports].”
He also expressed uncertainty about the 120-day period which has been applied to the reductions. “How do they turn this off? Are they going to stick to the 120 days, or can it be turned off at any time between now and the 120 days? What has to happen in order for them to turn this off?”
In terms of runway and airport lighting, Hendry said the airport has come up with an energy-efficient way to ensure that pilots have consistent access to YXT’s lighting when landing. “The plan [was] to have the lights turned on before [the flight services specialists] leave at 10 o’clock at night and then they go back into their control at 6 a.m.,” said Hendry. “That would be leaving the lights on all night, so the airport is installing a system called the Arcal and what that does is gives the pilots radio control of the lights.”
For their part, Nav Canada says the temporary level of service change will allow the company to implement flexible staffing, which it says will ultimately reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure to its teams across the country. “These new measures greatly reduce the likelihood of a full-unit closure and keep operators and the flying public safe through continued delivery of essential air navigation services.”
The company is currently implementing a crew system at all of its area control centres that sees minimal interaction between teams to ensure safety. However they say that these changes come with the cost of a temporary reduction in service at a number of their regional facilities.
Nav Canada says the changes were only made after a full and detailed risk analysis indicated to the company the temporary level of service changes at affected sites could be implemented safely.