Richard Cannings: Solution to Castlegar airport woes may be in sight

Air Canada has upgraded Penticton route to the Q400s — Castlegar may be next.

On Feb. 14, Air Canada gave Penticton fliers a Valentine’s Day present — they announced that this spring they would switch out the old Dash 8 aircraft they use now for newer, larger and quieter Q400 planes. That would provide more seats in and out of Penticton every day — good news for travellers and tourism operators alike. But the real benefit, as I’ve mentioned before in this column, is that the Q400s have modern avionics that allow them to land and take off under cloudier, foggier, or smokier conditions.

When I last wrote about this topic early last spring, I was promoting a lobbying effort from local communities to convince Air Canada that the Q400s would be a sound business investment. The demand for more seats and more reliable service is already there — 60 percent of Penticton travellers fly out of Kelowna, in part because they are concerned that the unreliable service in Penticton, particularly in winter, would jeopardize their connections to important business or holiday flights out of Vancouver.

Eventually I contacted Air Canada representatives myself, first at a tourism conference and later in Ottawa. In early December I had a breakfast meeting on Parliament Hill with an Air Canada representative and presented the case for Q400s in both Penticton and Castlegar. He mentioned that the timing of my request was good because decisions were going to be made this winter about which routes would be first in line for the new aircraft. Ironically, when I flew back to BC that evening I had to overnight in Vancouver because my Penticton flight was turned around by low cloud — and I immediately sent an email to the Air Canada representative to let him know!

There is one more other step that must take place before travellers can take full advantage of the new aircraft and their advanced avionics. Nav Canada, the corporation that owns and operates Canada’s civil air navigation system, must develop and implement Required Navigation Performance (RNP) protocols for Penticton. These are the precise paths that aircraft must take when landing and taking off. Nav Canada recently announced that they are undertaking this process and hopefully it will be in place before next winter.

The situation at the Castlegar airport is trickier. The narrow valley there makes it more difficult to land and take off at times of low cloud and fog, and cancellation rates in winter vary from 25 to 50 percent. On top of that, travellers from the West Kootenay have farther to travel for alternate flights, making long drives to Kelowna, Cranbrook or Spokane.

Developing RNP protocols for Castlegar would require Transport Canada to allow the use of RNP in the more mountainous terrain of the Columbia Valley. The United States has such RNP protocols and it would simply mean making Canadian protocols match those south of the border. Transport Canada has indicated it may take some time to make those changes, but I will press them to do so as quickly as possible.

I met with Air Canada officials again recently, thanking them for their decision on Penticton and pressing them on the issue of service to Castlegar. They said they were actually meeting to discuss the Castlegar situation within the next few days. Hopefully we’ll see positive movement on this important issue in the coming months. Reliable air service is essential to the economy of the southern Interior of BC, both for the tourism industry and for the many workers who choose to live here for the life style but must travel regularly for work.

Richard Cannings is the MP for South Okanagan-West Kootenay

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