Non-issue Surfaces Again

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September 12, 2011 - Over the last week, local media (CBC in particular) have been making some hay with the fact that, 10 years ago, the federal transport minister directed trans-Atlantic flights to land in less densely populated areas.

Those areas, of course, included Gander, Goose Bay, St. John’s and even Halifax – which are indeed sparsely populated, compared to Toronto or Montreal.

CBC ran a question of the day poll on this topic, with the majority saying that the federal minister did the right thing. The question has come up in other aspects of their coverage, too.

The story, of course, is not new. David Collenette, then the minister of transport, got in hot water back in 2002, when it was revealed that he directed air traffic away from big cities. Gander Mayor Claude Elliott was not happy about this, and took a swipe at the minister for diverting air traffic to his town. (He’s not complaining any more. He is beaming with pride about it now.)

I wrote about this issue almost 10 years ago, in my Media Spotlight column, which appeared September 28 2002 in The Express. What I said then stands now, so I am reprinting that text here, verbatim.


Tempest in a teapot

September 28, 2002 - Sometimes, reporters can be spin doctors too.

Federal Transport Minister David Collenette got in hot water recently when he revealed that, on September 11 2001, he directed trans-Atlantic flights to land in Atlantic Canada "to keep these planes away from Montreal or Toronto."

"We do take offence to what he said and the way it was said," Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly told The National Post. "We are not second-class and we refuse to be."

"If I think that my country is in danger, then every citizen in my country is important, irregardless of where they live," said Gander Mayor Claude Elliott in the same story, which was followed by other news outlets, including CBC Radio and TV news.

This, however, is one of the biggest non-stories of the year, and was pretty much manufactured by reporters. They took what was, at worst, a bad choice of words on Collenette’s behalf, goaded municipal politicians into making some angry remarks, and bingo! Instant controversy.  They took a spark and fanned it into a roaring flame (one that burned out quickly, I might add).

Let’s take a snapshot of the situation on 9/ 11. No one knew if there were hijackers on these jets, so shooting them down was not an option. The aircraft could have been turned back, though most would presumably have insufficient fuel for the return trip. And they couldn’t very well order pilots to ditch in the ocean.

Collenette had no choice but to get all flights on the ground as quickly as possible. So he directed them to airports in areas with the smallest population base. This was the only practical way to minimize risk, while getting the planes out of the air.

To put it another way, when a pilot manages to crash-land his crippled aircraft in farm country and kills three people on the ground, we all feel badly for these people. But we applaud the pilot's efforts to avoid the nearby city, preventing a much larger disaster. The same rationale applies here. Sometimes you have to make difficult choices, and in this case Collenette made the right one.

To the reporters who generated this story, I ask this: if you were transport minister, and there was a chance, however slight, that terrorists had turned a jet into a flying missile, where would YOU direct it... to Toronto and Montreal, or Goose Bay and Gander?



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