$700k in new air­port re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fund­ing not enough, crit­ics say

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - CITY+REGION - ALEX MACPHERSON amacpher­[email protected]­media.com twit­ter.com/macpher­sona

May­nard Slater still re­mem­bers the woman stand­ing on the ramp at the Unity Aero­drome, watch­ing as paramedics loaded her ail­ing baby aboard an air am­bu­lance for the flight to Saska­toon.

An­other time, the vet­eran pilot re­called, a young boy from a nearby Hut­terite colony was air­lifted out of the west-cen­tral Saskatchew­an town after a piece of chew­ing gum lodged in his wind­pipe, chok­ing him.

“If you have a heart at­tack out here, you get on the air am­bu­lance and you head for Saska­toon — if you want to save a life,” said Slater, a di­rec­tor and for­mer sec­re­tary of the Unity Fly­ing Club.

Ru­ral air­ports’ im­por­tance be­came clear last month, when 11 peo­ple in­volved in the Hum­boldt Bron­cos hockey team’s bus crash were flown to Saska­toon’s Royal Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal from the Ni­pawin and Tis­dale air­ports.

The crash, which killed 16 peo­ple, and sub­se­quent ef­forts by STARS Air Am­bu­lance and Saskatchew­an Air Am­bu­lance crews led some to point out the dan­gers of al­low­ing re­gional air­ports to fall into dis­re­pair.

The Unity Aero­drome, which is run by vol­un­teers on a shoe­string bud­get, is a prime ex­am­ple. In a re­cent ar­ti­cle for COPA Flight, Slater wrote about sav­ing thou­sands of dol­lars by mak­ing run­way lights from LEDs and ma­son jars.

But more are sig­nif­i­cant ex­penses on the hori­zon, in­clud­ing the need to resur­face the 3,500-foot as­phalt run­way. Slater es­ti­mated the cost at $1 mil­lion — “be­yond the scope of vol­un­teers,” he said with a wry laugh.

Unity Mayor Ben We­ber said he is con­cerned about com­ing up with that cash. Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties across the prov­ince are fac­ing in­fra­struc­ture deficits and ris­ing costs and “the re­sources sim­ply are not there,” he said.

“I’m afraid that we’re go­ing to have a real chal­lenge keep­ing up with the air­port to the ex­tent that it needs.”

The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment on Fri­day un­veiled $700,000 in new fund­ing for a dozen air­port up­grades that will be cost-shared with lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, in­clud­ing a $275,000 run­way over­haul in North Bat­tle­ford.

Vir­tu­ally every­one agrees that small air­ports are im­por­tant, serv­ing not only as run­ways for air am­bu­lances but also play­ing a role in the re­gion’s econ­omy — a point the gov­ern­ment made in its an­nounce­ment.

Since tak­ing of­fice in 2007, the Saskatchew­an Party gov­ern­ment has spent just un­der $7 mil­lion on 37 air­ports — mean­ing $14 mil­lion has been in­vested, when mu­nic­i­pal con­tri­bu­tions are in­cluded — un­der the Com­mu­nity Air­port Part­ner­ship pro­gram. The Unity Aero­drome has re­ceived about $115,000 of that to­tal. Its most re­cent ap­pli­ca­tion came in 2015, and re­sulted in a $15,000 grant ear­marked for seal­ing cracks in the as­phalt run­way, ac­cord­ing to the prov­ince.

The gov­ern­ment also spends about $2 mil­lion each year main­tain­ing and op­er­at­ing the 17 air­ports it owns out­right — most of which serve re­mote north­ern com­mu­ni­ties.

Most of the prov­ince’s air­ports are in­el­i­gi­ble for the fed­eral Air­ports Cap­i­tal As­sis­tance pro­gram, which re­quires year-round com­mer­cial air ser­vice car­ry­ing at least 1,000 peo­ple an­nu­ally.

Saskatchew­an High­ways Min­is­ter Dave Marit said while the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment would like to spend more, he be­lieves the pro­gram is suf­fi­cient to keep the air­ports it funds from de­te­ri­o­rat­ing.

“We’re al­ways chal­lenged with the dol­lars; that’s why there’s a com­mit­tee struck to look at the pri­or­i­ties and the is­sues,” Marit said Fri­day in an in­ter­view.

The MLA for Wood River added that he plans to meet with var­i­ous avi­a­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions over the com­ing weeks, and is al­ways open to dis­cussing their needs and how to meet them. Slater and We­ber are wor­ried, how­ever. Both ac­knowl­edged that with­out more money, air­ports could start dis­ap­pear­ing — with sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences for the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. Travis Karle is also wor­ried. Karle, who owns Ac­cumark Air­spray, spent the night of April 6 fu­elling fixed-wing “mede­vac” air­craft and he­li­copters at the Ni­pawin air­port.

In an in­ter­view on Fri­day, he ac­knowl­edged that the $14,500 ear­marked for Tis­dale’s air­port will be good for his busi­ness, but noted that other air­ports across the prov­ince are fall­ing apart — and could be­come un­us­able.

“Even­tu­ally, if there’s no ac­cess, for us to be able to use the run­ways and what­not, worst-case sce­nario there’ll be no air am­bu­lance ser­vice and there’ll be no spray­ing,” Karle said.

He be­lieves the so­lu­tion is sim­ple: More money for run­ways, taxi­ways, aprons and ter­mi­nal build­ings. But boost­ing fund­ing for air­port in­fra­struc­ture does not seem to be a pri­or­ity, he said.

“I think what hap­pens is (air­ports) get pushed to the back burner. They’re out of town and it’s not a fo­cus and there’s not a whole pile of users — so yeah, it goes by the way­side.”

DON HEALY

Re­gional air­ports play an im­por­tant role in ru­ral ar­eas, of­ten be­ing the only ac­cess to hos­pi­tals.

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