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Air travel taking off in B.C., but lack of traffic controllers a sky-high concern

There will be demand for more air traffic controllers: Miller
An artists conception of the new terminal building at the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.

As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes in Canada, and the aviation industry is rebounding, there is a looming shortage of critical workers.

The union that represents air traffic controllers is concerned there may not be enough for all the shifts in control towers around the country, mentioning the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport (YPK) as one.

“This is a problem that exists across the country, in a lot of places,” said Nick von Schoenberg, a union representative for the air traffic controllers.

He said smaller airports are “victims of an overall company cost-control approach.” Nav Canada, which runs the country’s civil aviation service, saw huge drops in air traffic, a corresponding reduction in revenue, and the company laid off about 900 of its approximately 5,000 employees. It also cancelled training.

READ ALSO: CEO of air traffic controller Nav Canada cites ‘staggering’ drop in flights in 2020

Von Schoenberg, who is the vice-president of the Pacific Region for Canadian Air Traffic Controllers Association, said there is a staffing crisis on the horizon. As an example, Pitt Meadows has only six people where the full complement would be 10. Air traffic controllers can be asked to work overtime of up to nine days straight, and up to 12 hours at a time. That happens routinely in Pitt Meadows.

“People are getting tired, and people are getting burnt out,” he said.

While he said the Pitt Meadows group “has done a tremendous job stepping up,” they will have a difficult time if a staff member leaves or misses significant work time.

Von Schoenberg said the company has been under pressure during the pandemic, as revenue plummeted. The response from government “could have been faster and more robust.”

He said the union is urging Nav Canada to start training people as quickly as possible, and they are.

Last week, the company cancelled layoff notices that would have impacted control centres in cities including Edmonton and Montreal.

“We are proactively taking this action to support our customers as they shift their focus to recovery. Nav Canada remains ready and able to ensure the continued safety of Canada’s airspace as demand for air navigation services grows,” said Ray Bohn, president and CEO.

The shortage of air traffic controllers has not been a serious problem for YPK yet, according to airport manager Guy Miller. He said Nav Canada is in the midst of what has been “a very challenging time.”

“As aviation traffic picks up coming out of the pandemic, Nav Canada will have to pick up with it,” asserted Miller.

Miller said he has not heard significant complaints from the local flying public about a lack of service from control towers. YPK it is becoming as busy as ever with both its general aviation and flight schools.

“We are getting close to pre-pandemic levels of general aviation traffic now,” Miller said.

READ ALSO: New infrastructure at Pitt Meadows Airport

What’s more, work is underway on a new terminal building, the Vancouver Aviation College, the Golden Ears Air Park and a new heli-park. Miller said six new general aviation hangars are being built.

“It’s a pretty robust time at the airport.”

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