Airport shouldn’t be allowed to languish

"The apparent lack of interest among local communities in upgrading the Trail Airport is not as real as it may seem."

The apparent lack of interest among local communities in upgrading the Trail Airport is not as real as it may seem.

The members of the East End Services Committee recently rejected the suggestion that airport operations be reviewed.  The committee also oversees other Trail area services funded by the regional district such as fire protection, transit, cemeteries and the Community Centre/Selkirk College building.

The problem with the call to action on the airport was that it came from City of Trail and it was pitched as a formal “service review.”

The view of the Silver City’s other partners in these services is that, based on experience, any such request by Trail is likely to be a manoeuvre by the city to pay a smaller share of the costs. Service reviews themselves are seen as long, drawn out affairs involving many meetings and consultants’ reports which result in no changes to the status quo, which many of the partners are satisfied with anyway.

Trail council’s bellicose approach to intra-community relations bears some semblance to the Israelis and Palestinians in its steadfast refusal to consider how the world looks from the other side. This approach was crystallized when a previous council replaced  councillor Gord DeRosa as its regional representative, who was viewed as too conciliatory, with that noted diplomat Robert Cacchioni. I am unaware of any improvement in relations as a result.

It would be a shame if the acrimony that has so coloured regional services in recent years led to the shelving of the airport master plan completed in 2011. The report called for staged improvements to the airport based on usage growth and paid for largely by passengers and grants from senior levels of government, as opposed to local taxes which pay most of the current costs.

Three scenarios for traffic at the airport are presented in the report: Low or shrinking based on aggressive marketing by carriers using the Castlegar Airport as well as other factors; baseline or medium growth similar to what has been experienced; and high growth resulting from aggressive marketing and a second airline offering flights.

Only 15 months after the document was issued, the airport has matched the medium, 10-year growth scenario as a result of Pacific Coastal adding an additional daily flight to and from Vancouver. Some of this could be a temporary blip resulting from dam construction, but the report notes that provincial forecasts for the Lower Columbia’s two major economic sectors, mining/metallurgy and health care call for continued modest growth and that Teck, 5N Plus (Firebird Electronics), KC Recycling and Toxco all have expansion plans underway or on the books.

The report calls for the 4,000-foot paved runway to be extended by 1,000 feet, which is as much as the existing property can accommodate. This would allow for greater operating efficiency of the passenger planes currently using the airport, as well as the DASHs favoured by Air Canada on its short hop routes.

Other improvements suggested include low-key improvements to navigational aids and procedures to increase service reliability during the foggy months, better vehicle access and expanded parking, a new, larger terminal of 5,500-to-6,500 square feet to replace the limited facility now leased from the Trail Flying Club, and increased staffing that would ultimately replace the current volunteers.

The additional costs would be paid for by increasing parking fees and a $15 airport improvement fee levied on passengers,assuming that senior government grants covered two-thirds of the capital costs. The report projects a likely operating surplus after seven-to-eight years, which would relieve local taxpayers from supporting the airport as they do currently.

One issue the report doesn’t directly address is the likelihood that extra fees will affect traffic. One of the attractions of the current regime is that it is cheap for passengers and for the airline, because of the taxpayer subsidy and limited services.

But if you add $30 in fees for a roundtrip ticket and higher costs for parking, you start to chip away at the current price advantage. This might be offset if additional destinations were added.

All of which would have been unnecessary or at least unlikely if Castlegar had been more aggressive in promoting its airport and breaking Air Canada’s monopoly. All it would had taken was the foresight to adopt an operating regime and possibly minimal facilities that would allow for non-secure flights such as those offered by Pacific Coastal.

Trail’s biggest comparative advantage is that passengers don’t have to expend the extra time and energy needed to submit to the ludicrous security charade that now besets anyone using the main terminal at most airports. The shorter drive and slightly better reliability are attractive as well.

Now it’s up to the local politicians to forget about the debate over the service review and get back to the business of ensuring that Greater Trail has an airport that meets its needs.

Raymond Masleck is a retired Trail Times reporter.