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Securing the runways
Securing the runways
Michael Byers
March 3, 2006
Stephen Harper plans to defend Arctic sovereignty with new icebreakers, underwater sensors, a deepwater port at Iqaluit and Arctic-trained paratroopers. While doing so, he should also look up. Our northern skies have become busy of late, and we're woefully underprepared for any emergencies that might arise. The development of GPS technology and ultra-long-range aircraft such as the Airbus 340-500 and Boeing 777-LR has led to a dramatic increase in air traffic over the High Arctic. Last year, 150,000 commercial flights took "transpolar" routes, flying from the east coast of North America to Southeast Asia or from the west coast to Europe and the Persian Gulf. Air Canada flies transpolar from Toronto to Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo. Some of its other flights cross the Arctic without going "over the top." On any given day, almost as many people fly over Canada's three northern territories as live there on the ground. Arctic routes reduce distance and often avoid strong headwinds, thus reducing flight time and fuel consumption. They are relatively safe, thanks to the technologically advanced equipment deployed. But even the newest aircraft can have mechanical problems, and passengers occasionally fall ill. Canadian and U.S. regulators require airlines flying Arctic routes to specify a series of alternative airports. Such airports must have a runway with sufficient length and strength to allow for a safe landing. In most circumstances, 2,100 metres of asphalt are required for an Airbus 340 or Boeing 777. As a point of comparison, the shortest runway at Toronto's Pearson International Airport is 2,700 metres, and even this proved insufficient for an Air France Airbus 340 landing during a storm last summer. The longest runway in the Far North is at Whitehorse; at 2,877 metres, it handles regular charter flights from Frankfurt. Iqaluit, at 2,606 metres, recently played host to the new 555-passenger Airbus 380 for cold-weather testing; it sees about one unplanned landing each month, usually because of medical emergencies. Yellowknife has 2,286 metres of runway, barely over the minimum. Moreover, its instrument landing system, required during poor visibility, works in only one direction -- a direction that leads to a drop-off into a lake. In March of 2004, a United Airlines Boeing 777 with mechanical problems diverted to Yellowknife. The plane landed safely, but the airport was deemed too small to fly in a replacement engine. The engine was flown to Edmonton, then trucked the final 1,500 kilometres. There are no other Canadian airports above 60 degrees north latitude where a long-range passenger jet could land safely. Inuvik and Rankin Inlet both have 1,829 metres of asphalt. Nunavut is spending $3-million to improve the instrument landing system and apron at Rankin Inlet, and an additional $18-million to pave the 1,515-metre gravel strip at Cambridge Bay. Resolute Bay, 1,500 kilometres north of Yellowknife and Iqaluit, has 1,981 metres of gravel. The runway at Alert, 1,000 kilometres farther north, is also gravel and only 1,666 metres long. Faced with this inadequate infrastructure, regulators are allowing airlines flying Arctic routes to designate alternative airports that fall short of the usual requirements. Arctic airports are expensive to maintain. Freeze-thaw cycles cause runways to crack and heave, a problem already exacerbated as climate change causes the underlying permafrost to melt. And while northern ground crews are adept at removing snow and ice from runways, their ability to do so speedily is limited by the availability of equipment and personnel. Most northern airports lack instrument landing systems, and do not offer 24-hour service -- a problem for an overnight flight from Beijing to New York that urgently needs to land. The federal government collects "overflight" fees for the use of Canadian airspace. That money used to go to Transport Canada, which spent some of it on airports, runways and rescue and firefighting services. Today, that revenue goes to Nav Canada, the private corporation that has been responsible for air traffic control since 1996. Northern airports, meanwhile, have been "devolved" to the governments of the three territories, which have been forced to shoulder most of the financial burden without the traditional revenue stream. To make matters worse, these changes occurred at the same time that Ottawa was concluding an air liberalization agreement with Moscow to enable more transpolar routes, thus increasing the need for improved infrastructure on the ground. A similar agreement has recently been concluded with China. In these circumstances, it behooves the federal government to immediately transfer sufficient funds to lengthen and pave northern runways, install or improve instrument landing, upgrade snow clearing, firefighting and rescue services, and to staff airports at night. In addition, the Department of Defence should lengthen and pave the runway at Alert. Internationally, frustration with the current situation has led to suggestions that airlines pay service charges directly to their designated alternative airports. Given the importance of strengthening Canada's presence in the North for sovereignty assertion purposes, such an approach is not ideal. Territorial governments can do the job, provided that some of the money generated by Canada's airspace is directed their way from a federal source. Finally, there is the issue of crash landings away from airports. Although such events are rare, frigid air during the long Arctic winter demand that rescuers reach the site within hours. And this they cannot do. In 1991, after a Canadian Forces Hercules crashed 20 kilometres from Alert, the pilot froze to death during the two days it took help to arrive. New Arctic-trained paratroopers could make a difference -- although, to be effective, some of them would need to be based in the North. Federal bureaucrats say the small number of incidents that might require search and rescue in the Arctic does not justify the expense of basing specialized personnel there. But unlikely events do occur. Imagine the reaction if an international airliner crash-landed on Canadian territory and its passengers and crew froze to death while waiting for help. Far more people fly over Canada's Arctic than have ever set foot there. Let's ensure they can do so safely before it's too late. Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC.
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