Operators of Small Atlantic Airports Say They Have Been Abandoned by Ottawa

FREDERICTON (CP) - Operators of small and medium-sized airports in Atlantic Canada say they feel they have been thrown to the wolves by the federal government.

Airport managers and people involved in the air transport industry said Wednesday that Ottawa does not have a national policy to help smaller operations survive the on-going turbulence in Canada's airline industry.

''What is the national policy for airports like Yarmouth, Sydney and Fredericton?'' asked Andrew Steeves, past chairman of the business group, Enterprise Fredericton.

''I don't see it. I think we've been thrown to the wolves.''

Airport officials were attending the annual Atlantic Provinces Transportation Forum, which began in Fredericton just hours after most of the board of governors of the small airport in Charlo, N.B., resigned, announcing that the airport is in a financial crisis.

Sonya Roy, mayor of Charlo, said following the meeting the airport is critical to the economy of northern New Brunswick.

''We generate over $20 million in spin-offs,'' she said. ''We create over 400 jobs. Are we just going to turn our backs on this? It is an important economic tool for the north.''

Roy said the community is looking for government help to help cover the airport's financial shortfall.

But Brigita Gravitas-Beck, director of air policy with Transport Canada, said Ottawa is no longer in the airport business and should not be turned to for help.

''Proposals to go forward have to come from the communities, not from the federal government,'' she said at the Fredericton meeting.

Gravitas-Beck said airlines are keeping their costs under control and it's time communities ''right-sized'' their airports.

She said if not enough people use local airport services, they will lose them.

Ottawa started ridding itself of airports in 1994 when it launched a national airports policy.

While the federal government retains ownership of the national airports system, regional and small airports were divested to local authorities.

With the exception of transition arrangements and possible contributions from the Airports Capital Assistance Program, airports are expected to be financially independent.

The adjustment has been particularly difficult in rural Atlantic Canada and several small airports have either closed or, like Charlo, are on the brink of closing.

Doug Johnson of the New Brunswick Transportation Department said that while provincial governments are not responsible for airports, something has to be done to save the smaller operations.

''We're just tuning out and letting these things die,'' Johnson said.

''We're at a crisis situation. Something needs to be done.''

Johnson said there will have to be some painful choices.

''We have to be strategic,'' he said.

Larry MacPherson of the Sydney, N.S. airport, said airports are at the mercy of airlines, which expect smaller operations to provide the same services as large airports for much less money.

MacPherson said Sydney gets six flights a day and has to plough its runways as often as the Halifax airport, which may get 10 times the number of flights.

''We don't want subsidies,'' he said. ''We just want a level playing field so we can negotiate with airlines.''

Cliff Mackay, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, said the outlook for the airline industry in Canada remains uncertain.

He said the future will not improve until the federal government removes the special charges and taxes that are choking the industry.

''If we don't have a champion in Ottawa, we are dead in the water,'' he said.

News stories provided by third parties are not edited by "Site Publication" staff. For suggestions and comments, please click the Contact link at the bottom of this page.