Four air ambulance flights out of Terrace have been delayed or cancelled since May 13.
That’s when NAV CANADA suspended the night shift at its flight service station at the Northwest Regional Airport, which provides support services, such as weather data, for pilots in what a NAV CANADA representative called a response to COVID-19.
Without that late shift, air ambulance pilots operating at night are forced to rely on automated hourly weather reports instead of live weather data from the flight services station when attempting to determine if they can safely fly.
“Terrace is an airport at which accurate weather reporting is critical, due to the surrounding mountainous terrain causing local weather to rapidly change,” said Shannon Miller, a spokesperson for BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) which manages air ambulance flights.
Miller said delayed or cancelled flights delays care for critical patients.
“Flights between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. are normally for critical patients where waiting until the morning could be negative to a patient’s outcome,” she said.
Three of the affected flights were delayed, while one was cancelled entirely, Miller said.
“In one case in Terrace, the pilot declined due to there being no weather reporting available. The pilot was not able to predict when the wind gusts would die down or what cloud heights would be,” she said.
The matter was discussed at a Terrace city council meeting July 8 attended by mayor Carol Leclerc and some members of council as well as Carman Hendry, manager of the Northwest Regional Airport. A NAV CANADA representative, a BCEHS representative, other Terrace councillors, two councillors from Kitimat and Taylor Bachrach, MP for Skeena—Bulkley Valley, attended via a conference call.
Heather McGonigal, assistant vice president of stakeholder and commercial relations at NAV CANADA, a federal agency, said that suspending the night shift did not result in cost savings for NAV CANADA.
“None of our staff are laid off. What we did is we took the people that generally would be at midnight hours where traffic was minimal, and we put them on reserve,” she said. “They were at home, so that if by chance someone in the daytime hours, which are historically busier, if they became ill or they had an absence, that person that used to be on midnight [shift] could slide into that schedule.”
NAV CANADA had to apply to Transport Canada for approval to temporarily suspend services, McGonigal said. The service suspension in Terrace began May 13 and can last up to 120 days.
McGonigal said Terrace was one of 16 airports across the country to face NAV CANADA service reductions.
Mayor Carol Leclerc asked McGonigal why the Terrace airport was selected when it serves as a hub for the vast Northwest with the closest major airport being six hours away in Prince George. Leclerc also questioned why the Terrace airport was selected for pandemic precaution measures when there is a relatively low rate of COVID-19 cases in the Northwest.
“When we have a gap of air service of almost six hours now, that does not help any of us,” she said. “If we’ve got four people who have been impacted, those lives are important to each and every one of us here.”
McGonigal said NAV CANADA is looking to resume full service and that may happen sooner in provinces with low infection rates.
“We are trying to do this systematically and we will definitely be lifting these temporary service measures earlier in some provinces.”
Others in the meeting voiced similar sentiments to Leclerc’s. Councillor James Cordeiro said he didn’t believe NAV CANADA’s rationale for reducing flight service in Terrace and Bachrach encouraged McGonigal to explore resuming the service.
Councillor Sean Bujtas was extremely displeased that Terrace was selected as a location for reduced flight service.
“I just love hearing that lives in rural communities don’t matter as much as lives in urban communities,” Bujtas said sarcastically. “We have children, we have parents in these communities and it just seems that people from the larger centres make these decisions with no care.”