$700k in new airport rehabilitation funding not enough, critics say
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.”
Regional airports play an important role in rural areas, often being the only access to hospitals.