Comox Valley Airport pressuring Ottawa for decision about flights

About 100 flights have been diverted or cancelled over the past year thanks to the tree height issue around the Comox Valley Airport.

About 100 flights have been diverted or cancelled over the past year thanks to the tree height issue around the Comox Valley Airport.

Comox Valley Airport Commission CEO Fred Bigelow says he crunched the numbers carefully, paying close attention to the weather reports to ensure diversions and cancellations that would have occurred with regular instrument approach heights were not included in the total.

Bigelow decided now is the time to start pressing the federal government to make its decision on the matter soon.

“If this is to be dealt with, it needs to be dealt with before the weather closes back in next fall,” said Bigelow.

Due to safety concerns about tall trees near the airport, 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 in effect for two winters now and means lower cloud levels prevent them more often from landing.

Complicating matters, the trees are nesting habitat for great blue herons and are located on private property owned by people who have submitted objections to cutting them.

Bigelow asked the Town of Comox for support in its request for a prompt decision Defence Minister Peter MacKay. Comox council agreed in March writing a letter asking for ministry staff to “deal promptly with the four local landowners who have submitted objections.”

Courtenay council has now followed suit and will soon send a similar letter asking the minister to make his decision on the matter with haste.

Bigelow stressed the intent is not to push the minister one way or another in his decision — it’s just to get a decision.

“It looked like the progress was slowing down,” he said, noting he watched as the file travelled up the chain and landed on the defence minister’s desk in December. “When I was making my own inquiries directly to see how things were going I got the impression that, perhaps, the folks in Ottawa didn’t realize, A, how important this issue is, and B, how time sensitive it is.

“So it was appropriate at that time for us to make sure that the government, and in particular, the minister of defence understood those two issues — and not to suggest which way he might decide to deal with these objections, but the fact that if they’re going to be dealt with, they need to be dealt with promptly.”

Courtenay councillors noted the airport’s importance to the entire Comox Valley’s economy and voiced concerns about potential negative economic impact if the issue is not dealt with soon.

They also touched on concerns around losing airlines — particularly WestJet — due to financial losses associated with increased diversions and cancellations.

“Nanaimo is building their airport up,” pointed out Mayor Larry Jangula, adding, “and other areas are certainly flexing their muscles and looking at trying to get it, so we need to do everything we can to keep this airline here and keep it strong.”

As he did in the fall, Bigelow again said he is not concerned about airlines pulling out.

“WestJet, Central Mountain Air, Pacific Coastal, they all want to stay here and they plan on staying here,” said Bigelow, while acknowledging that obviously none of the airlines are keen on increased cancellations or diversions.

He noted WestJet has a senior technical pilot looking for ways around the problem, and one of the reasons WestJet decided to come here is that the Valley has the longest runway on the Island.

“But it’s important that we resolve these issues and get that operational capability back to 100 per cent as soon as we can,” he added.