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Hundreds want Fort Smith runway change reversed, MLA says


February 26, 2021
By Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio

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Fort Smith residents are not happy about the state of their local airport, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos told the legislature on Thursday, continuing a years-long campaign.

Martselos said constituents had expressed “discontent and disappointment” at the narrowing of the airport’s runway in 2019, an issue she has raised a number of times in the past.

“Oftentimes it seems my words fall upon deaf ears when it comes to this topic,” she said.

“This government, primarily the Department of Infrastructure, refuses to acknowledge that any errors or missteps had occurred regarding the changes done to the Fort Smith airport runway.”

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Those changes involved narrowing the runway from 200 ft to 100 ft, which the territorial government said would reduce operational and maintenance costs – related to activities like snow removal and repaving – while still offering a serviceable runway that met federal standards.

However, the work prompted concern from local governments, Indigenous groups, businesses and residents that the change could affect the town’s ability to evacuate in an emergency and would negatively impact the economy.

In May 2020, then-infrastructure minister Katrina Nokleby acknowledged residents and businesses had not been given enough information ahead of time about the changes. (Nokleby was not the infrastructure minister when the work took place, in 2019.)

Martselos said she now has a petition of 550 signatures from people who believe the changes have had a negative impact on the community. The MLA said signatories included the “entire leadership of Fort Smith.”

The petition asks the territorial government to return the runway to its previous width for public safety and economic reasons.

Included in the petition is a statement from Brian Harrold, owner of Northwestern Air Lease, who states the change has impacted the airline’s flight training school and could affect the kinds of plane available to assist an evacuation.

“Both WestJet and Air Canada have procedures that will not allow their aircraft to land on any runway narrower than 149 feet. This is why Fort Smith is no longer usable as an alternate airport due to bad weather,” Harrold is quoted as saying.

“This means that the only 737 aircraft that can take part in an evacuation would be the Canadian North 737-200. This will limit the aircraft that would take part in an evacuation and would leave the evacuation to the military and Canadian North for the large aircraft. The rest would have to be with ATR’s Dash 7s and Dash 8s.

“This could mean a large number of aircraft trying to depart or arrive in poor conditions.”

Current infrastructure minister Diane Archie, responding to Martselos, said the Fort Smith airport still carries the proper certification and is large enough to “accommodate aircraft such as a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320 series.”

“People need to realize that the type of aircraft that the airport is certified for has not changed,” Archie said.

“These aircraft do not currently land in Fort Smith.”

Sarah Sibley’s reporting is supported in part by the Local Journalism Initiative.