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WestJet not planning to reduce service to Comox due to flight diversions

Worries that WestJet will cut back service to the Comox Valley due to flight cancellations or diversions this winter are unfounded, according to WestJet.

About a week-and-a-half ago, 14 flights to the Comox Valley Airport were cancelled or diverted due to foul weather combined with lower ceiling restrictions imposed by Transport Canada.

Comox resident Geoff Russell, whose family was stuck during the recent flight diversions, brought up a concern that the company could pull out of Comox because of the restrictions.

However WestJet's manager of public relations Robert Palmer says the company is not considering cutting service to the Valley at all.

"No, there's no contemplation of that at all. It's important for people to realize that while it is extremely inconvenient when this happens, it doesn't happen very often," he says, adding he's not making light of the inconvenience travellers experienced. "We very much regret that it has such a significant impact on their travel plans. At the same time, looking at it from a bigger picture, we're only talking about, about two per cent of the flights over the course of a calendar year being affected."

According to Palmer, there have been 27 WestJet cancellations or diversions so far this year, with 11 in February, two in June and 14 so far this month. When compared to 2011's total of two cancellations or diversions, the number seems high, but Palmer says that with about 1,200 domestic flights per year coming in from Edmonton and Calgary, the number really isn't that high and equals only about two per cent of these flights.

"However, the height of the trees does present a safety issue when there is bad weather in the vicinity of the airport so we do need to get that addressed," adds Palmer.

Due to some tall trees near the airport causing safety concerns, Transport Canada imposed restrictions on the height at which pilots must be able to physically see the runway when they're coming in to land. Instead of 200 feet, pilots must be able to see at 500 feet — which has been the case for nearly a year now and means lower cloud levels prevent them from landing more often.

The current runway construction work, which has temporarily shortened the main runway from 10,000 to 7,000 feet, is not a "significant issue," according to Palmer.

According to Col. Jim Benninger, wing commander for 19 Wing Comox, which is in charge of airport operations, the runway work should be complete by March, but the tree remediation project is not expected to be finished until December 2013. Great Blue Herons and eagles live in some of the trees so the base is conferring with the Canadian Wildlife Service and Environment Canada to ensure the birds are disturbed as little as possible.

The ceiling height restriction should go back to 200 feet once the trees are dealt with.

Meanwhile, WestJet sent a technical pilot to the Comox Valley Airport to try to find a workable solution while the height restrictions are in place.

"He's an expert in approaches, and so he was there and, it's just part of an ongoing effort on the part of ourselves, in co-operation or partnership with the airport and the base to see if we can't figure this out," says Palmer. "If there's a way that we can work with the government and come up with solution that is well within the margins of safety but allows us to land more often in bad weather.

"We're not sitting back and throwing our hands up and saying, 'Well I guess that's it then, we're just going to have to deal with the cancellations or the diversions.' No, we're solution-oriented, both for us and for the people who rely on our service in and out of the Comox Valley. We want to be able to find a solution."

writer@comoxvalleyrecord.com

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