Fort Smith community leaders are worried an airport runway rehabilitation project – about which they say they weren’t consulted – could lead to “disastrous results” in the community.
In a letter to Wally Schumann, the infrastructure minister, a group of four leaders claims work to narrow the runway will affect the town’s ability to evacuate and negatively impact the economy.
Signatories to the letter include Mayor of Fort Smith Lynn Napier-Buckley, Smith’s Landing First Nation Chief Gerry Cheezie, NWT Métis Nation President Ken Hudson, and Salt River First Nation Chief Frieda Martselos.
Jim Heidema, chief operating officer of local airline Northwestern Air Lease, echoed their concerns. The Fort Smith-based company is the airport’s primary user and operates a flight school at the airfield.
The Department of Infrastructure disputes the assertion it did not consult with local groups.
Speaking to Cabin Radio, the department said the narrower runway would not change the level of service provided – either during routine operations or in the event of an emergency.
The work at the centre of the debate involves narrowing the runway from 200 ft to 100 ft. This is intended to reduce operational and maintenance costs related to activities like snow removal and repaving.
At the same time, the existing runway lighting is being replaced by brighter, energy-efficient LED bulbs.
The work began in May and is expected to be complete in August. The $1.8-million contract was awarded to a local company.
Contrary to the department’s assertions, community leaders say in the letter they were not consulted – which they term “unacceptable.”
“The community leaders and the local residents should have a right to consultation on such a vital transportation need,” they wrote in their June 17 letter.
Narrowing Fort Smith’s runway is designed to save on costs associated with keeping it operational, particularly activities like snow removal during winter. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The group is concerned a narrower runway will make a quick evacuation difficult in the event of a forest fire or other natural disaster.
Additionally, the group expressed a fear that the narrower runway could negatively impact local business – though the letter did not explain this concern in detail – and create an additional challenge for new pilots at the local flight school, who would be learning to fly on a runway half its original width.
The group goes on to voice a concern about the new LED lights, saying leaders “have been told” the lights require winter cleaning and may not operate properly in harsh conditions, though it’s not clear in the letter where that suggestion came from.
Delia Chesworth, who oversees air safety for the Department of Infrastructure, said the new lights are already in place at airports like Norman Wells and Tuktoyaktuk, and “are receiving very positive feedback from the pilots.”
Consultation or advisement?
Chesworth maintains local groups were consulted about the changes.
“With airport infrastructure, we look at the current and future requirements of it and we discussed that with our key users, aviation partners, and regulatory authority,” she told Cabin Radio.
“The people we need to contact are the stakeholders who are knowledgeable about the airport, the aviation industry, and a number of those reside in the local community.
“I can assure you they were consulted. We talked with them and we continue to talk to them,” she said, saying the department had first contacted people about the changes in June 2018.
Airline executive Heidema remembers hearing about the plans last year, but disputes Chesworth’s suggestion that this amounted to a consultation.
“We were really advised,” he said, adding Northwestern Air Lease was told about the new lighting but was not aware the runway would be narrowed until immediately before the work was due to begin.
“Unfortunately, we’re so far into the project, I’m not sure that anything can be done at this point,” he said. “But certainly, we as an organization, and we as a community, are fairly upset about the whole idea.
“I just find it frustrating that we weren’t invited in the planning part of this … there’s very little we can say or do when they say, ‘OK, this is what we’re doing,’ rather than, ‘This is what we’re thinking.’
“We could have had the conversation beforehand and we wouldn’t have all these people upset.”
‘Not convinced’ by narrower runway
Unlike the signatories to the letter, Heidema commended the NWT government on its decision to change the runway lighting. Heidema said the new lights have a higher resolution, making them “much more visible to our pilots in adverse conditions.”
But he, too, has concerns about narrowing the runway itself.
“That extra 100 ft is always important when you’re coming in and there’s winds and weather,” he said.
“From our perspective, what they could have done is … run the lights down the same pathway as the existing lights at considerably cheaper costs,” he said, noting the contractor instead has to drill into the concrete and pavement to run new cables and lights.
Chesworth sees the project differently. She believes the runway’s original 200-ft width dates to an era when planners expected aircraft to get bigger and bigger with time – an expectation that she says has not materialized.
To her, 100 ft meets current standards and “is appropriate for the aircraft serving the airport.”
The department says larger aircraft, like the Boeing 737, will still be able to use Fort Smith’s airport for emergency landings. In an emergency, any aircraft that can use a 6,000-ft runway (in length) will be permitted to land.
A WestJet Boeing 737, in the foreground, at Calgary Airport in March 2019. The Department of Infrastructure says Fort Smith’s narrowed runway will still be able to accommodate aircraft of that size. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Still, Heidema questions if the narrower runway could support multiple large planes landing and turning around – for example, in an evacuation.
“I’m not convinced, if we had a number of 737s coming in here, that we’d have the space to accommodate and turn them around – and get everybody out of here that we’d have to get out of here,” he said.
Training ‘absolutely possible’
The impact on the flight school is an additional concern for Heidema.
Northwestern Air Lease announced its flight school was certified this April – the same month the airline says it learned the full scale of the runway rehabilitation.
The school will train northern pilots in an effort to combat an exodus to commercial airlines down south.
But Chesworth argues new pilots don’t need a runway twice the width of current standards.
“There are 179 flight schools across Canada and, of those, 101 have runways with a width of 100 ft or less,” she said.
“So it is absolutely possible for a flight school to operate on the runway that is provided in Fort Smith.
“On top of that, many of our community runways where these new pilots will be flying into are also 100 ft or less.”