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Seaman: The National Airports Policy

Success or Great National Nightmare?


September 27, 2007
By Rob Seaman

Topics

The Canadian National Airport System (NAS) was first defined in 1994 in
an aptlynamed document called the National Airports Policy (NAP),
published by the government of the day. The intent of the NAP was to
map out a plan of action for all airports with an annual passenger
traffic rate of 200,000 or more and airports that serve the national,
provincial and territorial capitals.

As
of 1994, there were 26 airports categorized as NAS airports, which
served 94% of all scheduled passenger and cargo traffic in Canada. In
2006, there are still 26 NAS airports – despite the increase in overall
passenger traffic numbers.

In addition to the NAS airports,
other airports within the NAP are classified as Regional Local
Airports, Small Airports and Remote Airports. In total, 150 airports
that were originally owned and operated by Transport Canada were up for
a change. By March of 2000, they were transferred to their various new
owner/operators including the provinces, municipalities, local airport
authorities or private operators. In the case of the NAS sites, the
airport is leased to the operating authority that agrees to take on the
responsibility for its operation.

The Auditor General of Canada
(AG) has found things not to be as rosy as she would like. In a late
2005 media release, the office of the nation’s watchdog reported: “In
our October 2000 Report, we audited the transfer of the airports in the
NAS by Transport Canada. We found that the department did not know the
financial impact of the transfer. Specifically, how the transfer
affected taxpayers and the long-term viability of the airport
authorities, or whether it was fair and equitable for all airports. The
department had not completed its five-year review of the transfer of
the first five airports, had not defined its role as owner, landlord,
and overseer of the airports. It also did not know whether airport
authorities were complying with the provisions of their lease in areas
such as facility management, environmental protection, and governance.
It was stated that the department was not systematically overseeing the
financial viability of the NAS and had not determined how to measure
the performance of the airports. It also had not reported to Parliament
on the impact of the transfer.”

In the most recent review and
report, the AG sees some improvements. “Transport Canada has almost
concluded the National Airports Rent Policy Review, which will allow it
to assess the financial impact of the transfer of the airports in the
National Airports System.” The report continues: “The Department has
also clarified and assumed its role as owner, landlord, and overseer of
the NAS airports, and established good relations with the airport
authorities. The Department found a high level of compliance by airport
authorities with the provisions of their lease. The authorities are
maintaining the airport facilities in as good or better condition than
before the transfer. Also, they are exercising due diligence regarding
environmental protection and complying with the lease provisions on
public interest and governance. Moreover, Transport Canada now monitors
the financial situation of the airport authorities annually and
oversees the longterm viability of the NAS.”

On the negative
side, though, the AG finds that “Transport Canada does not measure the
airports' performance, with the exception of financial data. The
department has not yet identified the areas it needs to measure and has
no approved framework showing how it would measure performance.”

People
have to fly for business and personal reasons. So with little or no
choice, they use the resources at hand, which come with landing fees,
improvement surcharges, inconvenience, poor customer service and all.
There are many things that a government is required to do in support of
its citizens. And some of these things simply should not be reassigned
to anyone other than the government. In the opinion of many, air
transportation is one of those. So while we now hear that the federal
government is moving to its latest great idea – the “Blue Sky” strategy
for the airline industry, “a plan that will create more foreign airline
competition and more choice for travellers” – some of us are given to
pause and ask, in light of all of the above, are we ready for this? Is
the support structure there? Or are we just going to add more fuel to a
fire that is apparently not that well tended to start with?

We
will look at the impact of the National Airports Policy on the 124
non-National Airport System airports in the March/April 2007 issue of
WINGS.