Features Operations
Seaman: The National Airports Policy Part II

Success or Great National Nightmare?

September 27, 2007
By Rob Seaman


In 1994, Canada got its first major airport system overhaul in the form
of the National Airports Policy (NAP). While the key 26 National
Airport System (NAS) airports were well defined and addressed in this
plan with a definition of roles and responsibilities and active
third-party management groups, there still remain the other 124
airfields that were formerly under the guidance and operation of
Transport Canada. The years since the implementation of the NAS have
not been nearly so kind to these facilities and the communities that
they serve.

of the these airfields are definitely not anywhere near the standard
they should be. Worse yet, it appears based upon what some mayors and
councillors are saying, that the host communities lack the funds to
properly support and manage these sites. Neglect or need for repair
gives cause for one to wonder how operationally safe they are.

the key 26 NAS sites, the airport is leased to the operating authority
which agrees to take on the responsibility for its operation. However,
with the smaller regional/local airports, the new operator has actually
taken ownership of the airport. These airports in turn only receive
some level of ‘assistance’ from the federal level – initially it came
in the form of capital improvements. As you slide down the scale from
there, though, the level of assistance diminishes. Today you find bumpy
runways, crumbling ramps and taxiways along with inadequate grounds and
site upkeep.

Back when the NAS kicked in, the affected airports
were basically passed along in an as-is condition to their new masters.
In many cases, this meant that years of downsizing by the federal
masters had and were already starting to show their effect. The
municipalities or ‘entities’ that came into the sudden and new airport
business, really did not know exactly what they were getting. With the
smaller fields, more than one local council struggled with the question
of what an airport is worth – economically and socially. In some cases,
the answer was very evident based upon local employment, tourism
opportunities, and need based on remoteness of location. In others, it
was less clear.

In a 2001 report entitled Airport Ownership,
Management and Price Regulation, author Mike Tretheway of InterVISTAS
Consulting Inc. offers that the state of mind that led Canada into
getting out of the airport business was a 1980s phenomenon.
“Governments around the world faced enormous pressures from taxpayers,
(or the International Monetary Fund in the case of developing
countries) to control government deficits. Priorities were established
for government spending. Typically, airports fell to the bottom of the
list. This sector was considered to be a mature industry and one which
served a more affluent customer base.”

The NAS grew out of this
mentality. So where has this left us today? For many of the 26 NAS
airports, the last 10 years or so have really been a period of change.
For Toronto’s Pearson International Airport it has paid off – in some
ways. The Institute of Transport Management recently named this airport
as the Best Global Airport of 2006. On the downside, it has the highest
landing fees of any airport in the world and – in the opinion of many –
even more bureaucracy today than when the ‘feds’ ran the place. Not to
mention that customer satisfaction is not high here. And the same can
be said at many other airports.

As for the non-NAS fields –
well, as you bump and grind along the taxiway next time, bear in mind
that these underfunded but still important feeders into the North
American air system will soon be facing even bigger financial
challenges. They must adhere to new and as yet undeveloped security
plans and procedures. At the very least, improved ground security –
with added expense – will be the norm. They may also have to look at
screening and surveillance/ monitoring. The fact remains that change is
in the wind – and with that, costs that may close some down for good.

a matter of personal opinion, there are some areas where the government
simply should stay in control and ownership. Airports are one of them.
If you are going to dictate how things are run and what systems or
physical elements are needed, then you had best be prepared to help pay
for it. Canada is simply too large a country not to have a reliable and
well supported airport system.