December 18, 2020 By Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Star Phoenix
West Wind Aviation CEO Steve Smith says cheaper airfares could take flight in remote airports, pending a decision from the federal government.
He said lower fare costs depend on Transport Canada deciding whether runways in Saskatchewan communities like Fond du Lac and Wollaston Lake have a hard surface. If they do, aircraft taking off there can carry more weight — including passengers, cargo, and fuel — and allow the airline to lower some of its prices for those communities, he said.
“Because we can carry more people, our costs per seat go down,” he said.
“Right now, because are costs are quite high compared to what they could be, it’s expensive for us and our fares are higher than we would like them to be.”
He said planes carry the lion’s share of cargo into remote communities like Fond du Lac. That includes food, medicine and personal protective equipment used for COVID-19.
The community also has a winter road, but it’s a long drive to make deliveries, he noted.
West Wind has to lower its weight to use what’s considered gravel or soft surface runways. Smith said changing those limits may have downstream effects for issues like cost of living.
He credited the Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways for asking Ottawa to change the runway designation. West Wind plans to conduct tests with the ministry in the spring, in Wollaston Lake or Fond du Lac or both, to demonstrate its case to the federal government, he said.
Fred Antunes, deputy minister for highways, said he expects a decision from the federal government roughly in the next six months.
Antunes said the Fond du Lac runway has two layers of asphalt with gravel on top, which makes it a hard surface, not a soft gravel one.
Transport Canada defines a gravel runway as one made of clay, crushed stone or other soil materials. It says a paved runway is made of asphalt or cement concrete. It didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
“There’s maybe a misconception,” Antunes said. “They think that (if) it’s not (a) paved asphalt surface, you’re going to get loose stones and gravel falling off it. That doesn’t happen with these types of surfaces.”
Antunes said this type of runway is only used in Saskatchewan, but added it’s a cost-effective way to build a hard surface runway that could be applied to other northern communities currently using gravel.
He noted about 5,000 kilometres of provincial highway are built with roughly the same approach.
The airport at Fond du Lac is getting upgrades in the meantime, which the province expects to conclude in 2021.
If runways like Fond du Lac’s are recognized as hard surface, Smith said it could mean four to seven more passengers on flights in summer. In winter, it could mean nine to 10 more, “which is a big difference for us and for the communities.”