NAV Canada, hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, is considering cutting air traffic controller jobs at seven towers across Canada in an effort to save money as the global health crisis continues to drag down air traffic.

But some aviation experts and airlines warn that reducing the number of people who control air traffic and ensure aircraft keep their distance in the sky and on the ground would amount to removing a layer of protection.

“It would degrade the level of safety at Whitehorse,” said Joe Sparling, president of Whitehorse-based airline Air North. “We would encourage Nav Canada to look for other cost reduction measures.”

CBC News obtained an internal memo from Nav Canada president and CEO Neil Wilson informing staff that the not-for-profit company — which operates Canada’s civil air navigation system — is conducting studies of air traffic control towers in Whitehorse, Regina, Fort McMurray in Alberta, Prince George in B.C., and Sault Ste. Marie and Windsor in Ontario which “will result in workforce adjustments.”

The company also is looking into closing a control tower in St. Jean, Quebec. These locations were identified as having low-air traffic levels, even prior to the pandemic, the memo said.

“We are working closely with our bargaining agents to safely streamline our operations in an ongoing effort to align with traffic levels,” wrote Wilson on Nov. 14, adding his commitment to safety is unwavering.

Nav Canada manages millions of kilometres of airspace over Canada and used to provide air navigation services for more than 3 million flights a year. It’s funded through service fees paid by air carriers.

COVID-19 has dramatically decreased the number of flights across the country since March. In September, there was a 63 per cent drop in air traffic compared to the same month in 2019, according to Nav Canada numbers.

In response, the company announced in September it was cutting more than 720 jobs, or 14 per cent of its workforce. 

The CEO also warned more layoffs remain possible.

Nav Canada is studying the possibility of closing the St. Jean tower in Quebec. The company is also looking into transitioning the other six towers to “Flight Service Stations,” which would involve cutting air traffic controller jobs.

Flight service specialists — who cost less to employ than air traffic controllers — would replace those workers. They do not have the power to control air traffic and keep planes separated while in flight or on the ground. Instead, they provide advisory services and information about weather, runway conditions and air traffic, leaving it up to pilots to keep a safe distance from other planes.

Sparling said Whitehorse doesn’t have radar, so the tower can’t see air traffic on its screens. He said cutting the number of air traffic controllers from the airport could affect pilots by making it harder for them to keep track of everything in the air.

“It removes the level of safety afforded to air operators,” he said. “During peak season, during heavy traffic periods, it is a safer environment if you’re in a tower environment …

“The worst instance would be a collision or something like that.”

David McNair, a former aviation safety investigator with the Transportation Safety Board, said airports “with air traffic controllers tend to have a safer management of traffic.”

He pointed to a fatal mid-air collision over Penticton, B.C. in 1999 that killed five people and involved flight service specialists. One plane had just taken off from the airport when it collided with a descending plane. One aircraft smashed into the parking lot of the Okanagan University College, the other into the yard of a business. 

The crash raised concerns about the lack of air traffic controllers at the airport at the time — positions that were eliminated years earlier in a cost-cutting move by Transport Canada, according to a CBC report in 1999.

“Likely, neither pilot was aware of where the other aircraft was or what exactly it would be doing,” said McNair. “A tower controller would have controlled as required to provide separation.”

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens also raised concerns last week about the impact on Windsor’s airport, arguing that removing “Nav Canada controllers at YQG will really cut us off at the knees … it will have a detrimental impact.” City officials plan to fight the move by arguing it could cause delays and operational challenges.

In a statement, Nav Canada said that its studies are “rigorous” and follow a process set by Transport Canada that includes public consultation.

“Safety is always our number one priority — and we would never do anything to jeopardize that,” said Nav Canada spokesperson Rebecca Hickey in a statement to CBC News.

“When making decisions, we always take a long-term view to preserve the sustainability of the company and the integrity of the air navigation system of behalf of all Canadians.”

Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s office said that before Nav Canada moves forward with any staff reductions or terminations, it must ensure it will maintain “rigorous aviation safety standards.”

“Transport Canada will work closely with Nav Canada to ensure the safety of air transportation in Canada,” said department spokesperson Amy Butcher in a statement to CBC News.

Under Canadian aviation regulations, Garneau also has the power to direct Nav Canada to maintain levels of service if he believes there is an unacceptable risk to aviation safety.

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