Airport landing system in on time and on budget

Improvements also made to runway ahead of 2017

Published on January 28, 2016

With balloons, cake and the words “on budget and ahead of schedule,” the successful completion of a series of upgrades at the St. John’s International Airport was cheered Thursday.

The $53 million in improvements were marked at a news conference held at the airport.

Airport authority president and CEO Keith Collins said travellers can now expect fewer diversions and cancellations, with more flights able to take off and land in poor weather, particularly heavy fog, given the installation of a Category 3 instrument landing system (Cat 3 ILS).

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 The system is in the hands of NavCanada, and it will cover any ongoing service.

But $37.3 million was spent for its installation, from federal, provincial and airport authority accounts.

An additional $15 million was paid by the airport authority into separate maintenance work on the primary runway. That work was to be undertaken in 2017, but runway closures required for the new landing system’s installation provided a clear window to avoid future service disruption with the runway rehabilitation.

The airport braced for more diversions and delays than normal in the June through September period, given required runway closures.

But at this point, substantial construction work should not be required for the primary runway for the next 15 years.

Weather previously caused trouble for about 1,000 flights a year. With the runway and landing system work complete, as many as 700 more flights, an estimated 70,000 passengers, are expected to fly with schedules and plans unimpeded by weather concerns.

“Clearly both governments understood the strategic benefits of this project and partnered with us,” Collins said at the news conference.

“And this shared federal, provincial and airport authority investment — it is the people’s investment, and it has resulted in a wonderful new system that will significantly improve the reliability of aircraft landing in St. John’s,” said MHA Siobhan Coady.

“Efficient transportation options are vital to maintaining the business climate and developing our tourism market in Newfoundland and Labrador. And reliable and predictable service is critical for today’s travellers.”

Collins said airlines have been supportive throughout the construction project work. Air Canada and WestJet cover roughly 80 per cent of flights in and out of the airport and representatives from both Canadian airlines were on hand, echoing congratulations for all involved with the upgrades.

“We very much understand that our customers have plans. They’ve got places to go, people to see. And we are always committed to doing everything that’s possible to keep our flight schedule, which is Air Canada’s No. 1 priority. We also, our No. 1 priority, is to do so safely. And we will only operate flights when it is safe to do so,” said Kevin Howlett, Air Canada’s senior vice-president of regional markets.

“With that in mind, there is still times — I think we all agree — that it will be impossible to land here, but we think the overall operational integrity and reliability of the facility will increase dramatically with this investment.”

According to Cathy Duke, chief executive officer with Destination St. John’s, the airport’s new, roughly 99 per cent accessibility rate is already being highlighted in marketing work for meetings and conventions. She said there will be a campaign to get the message out on the airport upgrades.

“We’ll be launching it later this week, primarily to our target audiences,” she said.

Construction work continues on a separate airport main terminal building expansion. Collins said, under current plans, that project is also on time and on budget, with the east end expansion to finish early in 2018 and work on the west end to continue thereafter.


YYT airfield upgrades

Project started: Fall 2013

Improvements on secondary runway: Spring 2014

Primary runway closed: June 2015

Work finished at runway intersection: July 2015

All runway work completed — November 2015

Construction finished — January 2016

The project was expected to be finished in March 2016, but came in ahead of time and on budget, at $37.3 million. Separate work on the airport terminal continues.

(Source: St. John’s International Airport Authority)

$53-million airfield upgrade

Government of Canada: $12.4 million

Government of Newfoundland and Labrador: $13.8 million

St. John’s airport authority: $26.8 million (includes $15.7 million for work on main runway otherwise required in 2017)

NAV Canada installed and will maintain operation of the CAT 3 ILS technology — the system allowing the airport to claim 99 per cent accessibility, even given common fog conditions.


The tech problem

Not all aircraft are equipped or crews trained to take advantage of the new “Cat 3” landing system at YYT, aimed at facilitating more flights in poor weather.

While the majority of airlines have aircraft with the needed technology installed, not all do. And in some cases, airline fleets are only partially covered.

In the case of Air Canada, for example, all of its aircraft will only be Cat 3 capable upon completion of the fleet renewal program, although the airline does take the system into consideration when deciding on which planes are servicing which areas of the country on any given day, according to a representative at YYT Thursday.

“Their plan is when the conditions in St. John’s call for it, they will ensure that a Category 3 aircraft and a Category 3 trained crew makes the flight,” said airport authority president and CEO Keith Collins.

Planes without the needed system are in the minority. Even so, the airport authority has acknowledged it would be fair to say its publicized figures around accessibility expectations are based on a forward view, to a few years into the future.