No fix for Castlegar airport, experts say

The company that oversees Canada’s air navigation systems says improving the success rate of landings will be close to impossible.

The company that oversees Canada’s air navigation systems says improving the success rate of landings at the airport will be close to impossible.

Even with the most cutting edge technology available, the chances of improving the cancellation rate at the West Kootenay Regional Airport in Castlegar are next to zero, according to Nav Canada, the company that runs navigational systems in all Canadian airports.

In 2014, Nav Canada commissioned a study of navigational issues in Castlegar from Jeppesen, a subsidiary of Boeing, based in Colorado. Jeppesen specializes in navigational information and operations management. The company was asked to analyze what it would take to improve the current annual six-year average landing success rate of 86.5 per cent.

The Star recently interviewed Jim Ferrier and Ron Singer of Nav Canada about the study and its conclusions. Also, Ferrier and Jeppesen’s Jeff Bruce wrote a three-page summary of the Jeppeson report for use by the Star.

Improving landings at any airport involves the installation of RNP (required navigation procedure) into planes serving the airport. It is not a question of upgrading the airport itself. The planes have to be equipped with it.

RNP is a computerized landing system using satellite technology and GPS to automatically find the shortest and safest route into an airport. It is relatively new technology and not all airlines use it.

The point of using RNP in Castlegar would be to lower the minimum cloud ceiling under which a plane may land. That threshold is set by Transport Canada in Castlegar it is 3,000 feet (914 m). The hope in Castlegar has been to reduce that ceiling by half.

Take-off

But for taking off, the threshold is higher, about 3200 feet (975 m), depending on the type of aircraft, according to Ferrier. Without that level of visibility, a plane will be unwilling to land in Castlegar because it might not be able to take off again.

Ferrier says using RNP would not improve that requirement for take-off, with current technology. Therefore improving the success rate of landings in Castlegar is not possible.

“With such a weather requirement to accommodate departures, even if low minima existed for arrivals, air operators are unlikely to dispatch an aircraft to a destination from which it cannot depart in inclement weather,” he said.

Landing

As for landings, even if the take-off problem did not exist, Ferrier said RNP would not work at Castlegar without deviating from certain safety procedures, and it is unlikely that Transport Canada would certify those procedures.

“The deviations that would be required in Castlegar have never been tried before, so there is no proof of their safety,” Ferrier said. “And Transport Canada tends to be conservative when it comes to providing exemptions.”

The Jeppesen report as summarized by Ferrier and Bruce sets out some alternative scenarios examples of what would be involved in relaxing certain rules to make landing with RNP work in Castlegar.

Here is the first and the simplest:

There is a specified distance from the runway at which the pilot must be aligned and be able to see it. To land in Castlegar with RNP, this distance would have to be reduced. So Transport Canada would have to be asked to approve a shorter distance. But allowing that deviation creates a potential safety problem, because it would shorten the time and distance needed to do a missed approach that’s when a pilot changes their mind at the last minute and starts climbing again creating a potential safety problem.

To deal with that problem you would have to start the approach while in a turn, and that wouldn’t comply with regulations, Ferrier said.

The other examples in the report summary involve more exemptions that create a domino effect of new problems, and all of which Ferrier says are highly unlikely to be approved by Transport Canada because they have never been tried before and there is no proof that they work.

“Under the current criteria at the current time without multiple exemptions you cannot improve on what is there now,” Ferrier said, adding that to get those safety-related exemptions approved would be next to impossible.

Ferrier referred to what is known as the Swiss cheese model of accident causation, in which the more holes you put in a block of Swiss cheese (or in any system) the greater the likelihood the holes will align. “That is what all of us in the industry are trying to prevent,” he said.

Presented with this information by the Star, two prominent local people in the ongoing airport discussion are still optimistic.

Jim Gouk, a former four-term local MP and air traffic controller, told the Star that with a properly equipped aircraft the required ceiling for landing could be reduced to 1,500 feet (457 m). He is now a consultant in air transportation issues and is a former board member of Nav Canada.

Air Canada and WestJet

Castlegar city manager John Malcolm told the Star his understanding of the situation is that RNP could work if there were planes that were compatible with it. He said RNP cannot be installed in the Dash 8 aircraft Air Canada currently uses as the fleet would have to be upgraded and pilots trained, all at considerable expense to the airline.

“My understanding,” said Malcolm, “is that Air Canada and its contractor, Jazz, have their business plan based on continued use of Dash 8, which has had its life expectancy extended by 10 years.”

Air Canada wasn’t willing to speak with the Star for this article.

That leads to the question of whether other airlines might want to start flying into Castlegar. WestJet already uses RNP in much of its fleet. The Star asked WestJet by email if rumours that it plans to come to Castlegar are true.

“Unfortunately the rumours are not true at the moment,” read the response. “WestJet has no immediate plans to come to Castlegar. However as we take delivery of additional aircraft it affords us the opportunity to add new destinations and routes. Communities that are not part of our route map are always under consideration.”

Since that email, WestJet has cut 88 flights between Alberta and six BC cities because of the downturn in the Alberta economy.

Regional economics and landing stats

It has long been assumed the unreliability of the airport poses an economic cost to the region, but that impact has never been studied or quantified.

However, Malcolm says a related study is underway.

“The City of Castlegar has commissioned a study to analyze potential air passenger growth in the West Kootenay regional airshed,” he wrote in email to the Star. “The city will be using it for attracting new airlines or increased participation by the current airline if supported by the study’s findings. It will not be completed until next month.”

Landing success rates for Castlegar for each month of 2015 are shown in the table attached below. Statistics for the past six years show that:

The full-year averages for each year from 2010 to 2015 are all in the range of 85 per cent, except 2014 where the success rate was 94.3 per cent.

In December from 2010 to 2015, the success rates ranged from 56 per cent in 2014 to 85 per cent in 2011.

In January, the success rates ranged from 39 per cent in 2010 to 73 per cent in 2012.

Success rates for each month from May to September were often 100 per cent and the lowest was 90 per cent in June of 2012.

2015 Landing Stats

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