27 September 2012

NAP Comes Home to Roost

The National Airports Policy (NAP) was introduced in 1994 by Transport Minister Doug Young and has been continued by every minister ever since. That policy basically said that Canada has far too many airports and that the number needs to be reduced.

To accomplish this end TC got out of the airport management business, turning the national system of airports over to local municipalities and local authorities to run. This naturally meant that they did what they thought was best for their community and not for a national transportation system. It has taken a while, but the results of this short sighted policy are now being felt as local communities move to close their airports.

Already we have lost Toronto's privately-owned Buttonville, slated to close in the next few years. This week another move was made to close Edmonton City Centre Airport.

Edmonton has been the scene of a long battle over this airport. It is used for airline connections, medevac flights as well as business and private aircraft. The location is amazing - right downtown. Originally an RCAF Station out in the countryside, the city grew around it as the airport brought in so much trade and commerce.

A 1992 plebiscite indicated a narrow margin (54%) of citizens were in favour of keeping the airport open to all traffic. But a 1995 plebiscite asked whether citizens were in favour of consolidating all traffic at the Edmonton International and 77% voted for that. It is clear these days that the majority of the people of Edmonton want the airport closed and turned into public housing, shopping and condos. To this end citizens recently elected a mayor and council in favour of getting rid of the airport and they are now proceeding to do just that.

The municipality actually owns the airport, so they can do what they want with it. They have set aside $80M to expropriate everyone with an interest or business at the airport with the aim of it being closed by 2013. The only thorn in the side of the plan is a recently filed lawsuit by the Edmonton Flying Club. They have a lease on their site that doesn't expire until 2028 and are seeking $18M and an injunction to prevent the city from closing the airport. On 25 September 2012 a judge allowed the club to apply for a temporary injunction until the lawsuit is settled. The club have indicated they will drop the suit if they get a permanent injunction.

Will the club succeed and keep the airport open against the wishes of the city that owns the facility and the people who live in Edmonton? Perhaps, but I think it is unlikely for long. The federal government certainly isn't defending the airport as what is happening in Edmonton is exactly what the NAP promotes.

All of this shows that the NAP is doing what it set out to do, put airports in local hands so that local people and their governments can decide what they want for their community. As always feared local governments and citizens don't consider what is in the best interests of Canada, what sort of national network of airports the country needs, but just what they want and usually that means "close the airport". Over the years it has been clear that, for the people of Edmonton at least, this has been about aircraft noise and nothing more.

So does this mean that businesses will move their head offices elsewhere, that tourist dollars will disappear, that hotels and restaurants will go out of business and medevacs be diverted? Once the airport is closed I guess we will see what the impact on the city will be.

In the 2012 COPA Membership Survey members indicated that the biggest growing concern was the failure of the NAP and the loss of airports that it brought. It has taken 20 years for the full effects of the policy to be felt, but airports are now closing and airplanes and the business that they were home to are leaving. Many businesses will have no where else to go and will be shutdown. Many aircraft will also have no where to go and will be sold.

Edmonton still has some airports left, like far-out-of-town Villeneuve and the GA-hostile Edmonton International with its high "go away" landing fees. The loss of the Muni, when it does happen, will be felt and right across Canada, too. It is too bad that only the people of Edmonton have a say.

The last word on the issue goes to the man that signed the NAP, Transport Minister Doug Young. In January 2003 the Globe and Mail quoted him as saying that he regretted handing over control of Canada's airports and that the National Airports Policy was the worst decision of his career. I think the citizens of Edmonton would disagree with Young, but most pilots think his assessment is spot on. Too bad his policy endures, seemingly with a life of its own.

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