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Toward one million travellers

Fort McMurray Airport gears up for growth.

November 30, 2007  By David Olsen

Driven by the spectacular increase in economic growth since the Alberta Oilsands hit the headlines, Fort McMurray Airport (YMM) is on track to keep pace with demand, thanks to a $100-million development strategy recently approved by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Airport general manager Darryl Wightman and manager of procedures and public relations Sally Beaven are coordinating the efforts of the YMM management team, consultants, architects and Nav Canada to implement a new parallel runway and air terminal building, plus associated developments.
In the red-hot local economy, this kind of project is tough to manage. Wightman calls it “the Fort McMurray factor:” Virtually every employer in the area has positions open and there are simply not enough people to fill all the jobs, while the airport is losing employees to the higher-paying airlines and oil companies. In just two years the cost estimate for the planned new Parkade “skyrocketed from $12 million to $42 million, the only explanation being the Fort McMurray factor,” says Wightman. “There appears to be a widely held belief that for any project at Fort McMurray the quote can be double the cost it would be elsewhere.” 

Despite these difficulties, Wightman and Beaven are confident that the airport management team, with the support of the Municipality and the Airport Commission, will get the job done.
In 2006, Runway 07/25 was extended from 6,000 to 7,000 feet, and this spring it was further extended to 7,500 feet, allowing unrestricted operations by aircraft such as Boeing 767 and Airbus A330. 

The new parallel runway 07R/25L will also be 7,500 feet and fully equipped with visual and electronic aids to the latest Transport Canada standards.  Constructed to the south of the existing runway, it will be served by a parallel taxiway, appropriate high speed turnoffs and taxiway links to the existing runway, which will become 07L/25R. 


The parallel runway will allow uninterrupted operations at the airport throughout the year. Until now, the long northern winter and frequent snowfalls have hampered operations during snow-clearing.  The new runway layout will mean that one runway will always be unencumbered by snow-clearing equipment and, at other times, permit runway work without curtailing airport operations.  Another benefit for an airport with rapidly increasing traffic will be the increased flexibility and ability to cope with peak traffic without imposing significant arrival or departure delays.

South of the new runway, a new airport terminal building will be constructed to replace the existing overcrowded terminal which is located on the north side of the present runway. 

Wightman and the Airport Commission place the highest priority on operational safety. In a proactive move, the airport hired a safety and security manager to implement the Safety Management System in 2006, as originally planned by Transport Canada.  This date was delayed by Transport Canada and following the recent gazetting, will be mandatory by December 2008. 
Wightman foresees no difficulty in full implementation by the due date. A comprehensive risk assessment has been undertaken by the safety and security manager in conjunction with the design consultants, to ensure that all the risks inherent in the forthcoming changes have been identified, documented, mitigated and managed.

The number of charter passengers may have peaked as more people use scheduled flights, although in the past many B737s were chartered to carry oil company employees in and out of Fort McMurray at the beginning and end of their work cycles. 

Scheduled services connect Fort McMurray with destinations as far away as Toronto and Halifax, and during the winters of 2005 and 2006 charter flights were operated to overseas holiday destinations. Inbound international flights now have to land elsewhere to clear customs but Beavan is working with Canadian Border Services so that Fort McMurray can be designated as an
international port of entry.  Discussions are also being held with a US-based airline with a view to establishing daily service to the US, for which customs service will be an imperative.

Wightman and Beaven believe that customs facilities will have a significant positive effect on traffic.

Wightman is concerned that “there are many private corporate airstrips being built in
the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and if these strips are used to ferry workers in and out, YMM traffic could drop and with it our revenue.” On the other hand he recognizes that “spinoffs from resource development increase our traffic and I would hope that we can cap the number of private airstrips at the present level so that this airport stays viable.”

Expansion at YMM also provides challenges for Nav Canada, and Jim Strukalo, general manager of the Edmonton FIR, describes the new technologies, techniques and procedures introduced to keep pace with traffic growth and airport developments. 

Fort McMurray and the oilsands area of northern Alberta lies within the Edmonton FIR, the largest Flight Information Region in Canada. In addition to the expansion at Fort McMurray Airport, there are private airstrips at Mildred Lake and Horizon, north of YMM, with two more pro-
posed. To ensure that development is safe and coordinated, an Aerodrome Coordination Committee has been formed, including Nav Canada, the Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Fort McMurray Airport and the oil companies. 

Some major airspace changes have been made, in particular the establishment of Man-
datory Transponder Airspace around YMM. The airspace encompasses the 5 mile radius of YMM Control Zone, the Transition Area with a radius of 15 miles around YMM, above 700ft. AGL and the Control Area Extension from 2,200ft. AGL to 12,500ft, with a radius of 25 miles around the airport. Above the Mandatory Transponder Airspace, the Control Area Extension is Class B airspace above 12,500ft.
A key procedural change is the establishment of RNAV SIDs and STARs at YMM, part of the “RNAV everywhere” initiative in the Edmonton FIR.

In June, Nav Canada installed the Extended Computer Display System (EXCDS) at YMM.  This groundbreaking technology, developed by Nav Canada and sold to the UK and Denmark, has dramatically reduced controller and Flight Service Station (FSS) operator workload, while adding a new level of safety and efficiency. A completely paperless system, EXCDS has automated coordination and communication between the Edmonton Area Control Centre (ACC) and the YMM FSS. No longer do controllers and FSS operators have to exchange information by telephone and wait for a call before authorizing inbound approach clearances. The interactive user-friendly screens in the ACC and FSS provide instant detailed information on the progress of every flight in and out of YMM. 

Similar changes have taken place or are planned in the oilpatch area, which includes the airports at Peace River and Grande Prairie in Alberta plus Fort St. John and Fort Nelson in BC. This is particularly valuable due to the significant amount of crossing traffic and potential conflictions in the airspace. Another cutting-edge technology development has been installed that will provide electronic surveillance down to ground level at Fort St. John Airport. Until now, a limiting factor in the radar surveillance coverage of the area has been that the conventional mono-pulse SSR equipment that provides radar surveillance throughout much of the land area of the FIR, only provides coverage to a few hundred feet above the ground at most airports. New technology, known as multilateration, uses the signals from aircraft SSR transponders to provide surveillance information to ground level, updated every second.  Operational testing will continue through the coming fall and winter to build up the case for Transport Canada approval for operational use, using radar separation standards.

The application of new technology by Nav Canada and the continuing implementation of remote peripheral VHF communication (PAL) stations, ground-based radar and other systems have changed the face of air traffic management service provision. In the past, providing enhanced air traffic services involved implementation of conventional labour-intensive facilities and equipment. Now, a sophisticated planning process, managed by a Nav Canada team at Edmonton FIR, takes a holistic approach and considers numerous scenarios, involving people, equipment, technologies and procedures to come up with the most efficient and cost effective solution for the airspace customers, while maintaining the corporate commitment to the highest levels of safety. 

“We set ourselves a performance objective to reduce restrictions on air traffic in the Edmonton FIR,” notes Rudy Kellar, Nav Canada vice-president, operations. “As a result of these new initiatives and efforts from our staff, we not only reduced, but have nearly eliminated all tangible restrictions.” 

In 2005 restrictions peaked at more than 140 hours in a busy month, but two years later the figure has been reduced to a mere 20 hours.

The oilpatch is just one part of the airspace management task of Nav Canada. Using the upper airspace above YMM are flights between Europe and western North America, between Asia and North America, transpolar traffic to many points in Asia, plus North American high-level domestic traffic – all controlled in a highly complex airspace system based at Edmonton ACC.  Jim Strukalo manages it with a staff of skilled engineers, specialists, controllers and managers, all working as a team to provide “safety, service and efficiency through professionalism.”


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