On air traffic control, Dilkens says the new transport minister `gets it'
Local officials said Tuesday they came away feeling encouraged after speaking for the first time with federal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra on the importance of saving air traffic control at Windsor International Airport.
“He gets it,” Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said after the phone conversation with the recently appointed minister on the current aeronautical studies being conducted by NAV Canada on the possible elimination of the service at seven Canadian airports, including Windsor's.
“He's got all the messages, he's been well-briefed, and now we just have to wait for the (NAV Canada) report to get to his desk and for him to do the work he needs to do.”
Local leaders say what Alghabra needs to do is throw that report — prompted by NAV Canada in the face of dramatic declining revenues during the current pandemic — in the recycling bin.
They fear local disasters, both economically and from a safety perspective, should the service be downgraded.
The private not-for-profit company is responsible for the safe and efficient movement of aircraft in Canadian air space and makes its revenue by charging fees to airlines and other air carriers. NAV Canada has studied removing air traffic control from Windsor at least twice before, in 1998 and 2008, and decided to keep it.
The air traffic numbers have done nothing but rise since, local advocates say. They point to the fact that while Windsor's annual takeoffs and landings (called movements) peaked at 44,000 annually prior to COVID — less than the 60,000 NAV Canada wants to see — Windsor's situation is unique in Canada.
When looking at all air traffic within the 17 nautical miles that also encompasses Detroit's two airports, the number of movements hit 550,000 in 2019. That's more than the 455,000 at Canada's busiest airport, Toronto's Pearson Airport, remarked Windsor airport CEO Mark Galvin.
“That number alone would make us the seventh- or eighth-busiest airport in the world,” he said, pointing out that the complexity of local air space became tragically apparent in 1979 when two small planes leaving Windsor and Detroit City airports collided in mid-air, killing all five on board and scattering debris and bodies over a section of Riverside.
One consequence of that crash was the creation of a no-fly zone called the Riverside Descent Area, said Galvin, who recently made Windsor airport's final submission to NAV Canada in the form of a 200-page binder documenting the many concerns over the possible loss of air traffic control.
Another piece of evidence he included is the fact an official publication on Canada's instrument procedures for pilots dedicates 47 pages to Windsor's airport, which is more pages than for any airport in Ontario except for Toronto's Pearson.
“So it's another indication of the complexity,” Galvin said. “The reason we're doing this is because we believe a control tower is vital and they do a tremendous job keeping the complex skies around Windsor/detroit safe. That's really important to us.”
It's expected that NAV Canada's recommendations will arrive in the transport minister's office sometime in April or May.
Dilkens said he came away from Tuesday's phone call feeling the minister had a strong understanding how important retaining air traffic control is to Windsor.
“We talked about the air crash in '79, the complexity of the air space and how these (Detroit and Windsor) airports are still active and in the same places and busier now than they were before,” the mayor said, remarking how important it was that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the issue in an interview with the Windsor Star's Dave Waddell last week.
“I don't know how we could get any more traction at the highest level in the land than doing what we've been doing, I think we've been successful getting noticed on this issue.”
The mayor's phone call with the minister also included Essex County Warden Gary Mcnamara, who is also Tecumseh's mayor, and local MP Irek Kusmierczyk (L — Windsor-tecumseh), who set it up.
“What the minister shared with us, first and foremost, was a commitment to both mayors and the community that any decision made will not have a negative impact on safety,” Kusmierczyk said.
“He definitely has a very good understanding, a good grasp, of what makes our air space unique — the complexity of it, the proximity to both airports in Detroit and also the sad, tragic history of the air crash in 1979.”
That number alone would make us the seventh- or eighth-busiest airport in the world.