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A battle familiar to Wabush Mayor Ron Barron is unfolding in Labrador West. Transport Canada (TC) has decided to end its aircraft rescue services at the Wabush Airport, effective Aug. 8.
TC began providing the service after the town of Wabush said in 2012 it would no longer respond to calls at the airport for safety reasons.
Barron said the concerns they had then, are the same concerns they have now.
“It’s a safety and liability issue, plain and simple,” he said. “We can’t expect volunteers to respond to aircraft disasters and put the safety of themselves and everyone else at risk.”
He said their fire department is trained to respond to structure fires, not to deal with things like pressurized aircraft and jet fuel.
Chris Bussey, Atlantic region vice-president for the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees (UCTE), echoed Barrons's concerns.
He said the decision is cost-based, not safety-based.
“It’s removing a service that’s provided for anyone traveling in or out of that airport right now. We think this decision, if there’s an aircraft disaster, could cost them their lives.”
UTCE represents airport employees and three contractor positions the change will eliminate. Bussey said the decision is of concern to all workers they represent there.
“These people have to go to work now knowing this service might not be there,” he said. “It’s not just them it could impact though, it could impact all the nearby towns.”
The union has written a letter to Minister of Transport Marc Garneau asking for a review of the decision. It also plans to undertake an awareness campaign in the coming weeks and months, Bussey said.
In an email to the SaltWire Network, Transport Canada said it based the decision on declining passenger volumes at the airport.
“The Canadian Aviation Regulations require airside firefighting for any airport exceeding 180,000 annually enplaned and deplaned passengers from commercial aircraft,” the email read. “However, since the contract was put in place, passenger volumes at Wabush Airport have decreased below 180,000. As these passenger volumes are not expected to reach 180,000 in the foreseeable future, there is no regulatory requirement to provide the service.”
TC uses information from Statistics Canada’s Airport Activity data, which includes data from commercial flights and charter flights aircraft weighing 15,900 kilograms or more. The most recent data available for Wabush Airport is 2017, since the more recent years are withheld by Statistics Canada for commercial sensitivity.
Barron said he doesn’t believe all the traffic at the airport is included and if they aren’t over the number determined, they’re not far off. He said if more recent airport data were available, it might paint a different picture.
“In 2016 it was a downturn in our industry, with the mine closure and stuff like that. Those things have to be taken into consideration before a decision like this is made to stick to an arbitrarily chosen number.”
Since then the economy in Labrador west has improved a lot, Barron said, with planeloads of workers going through the airport weekly.
Barron said he and the mayor of Labrador City have been in contact with Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, who told them she is working to have the more recent data included. SaltWire reached out to Jones, but she was not available as of press time.