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B.C. air traffic controllers warn post-pandemic staff shortages threaten safety, service

The Canadian Air Traffic Control Association (CATCA)  is warning that staffing shortages, particularly at smaller regional and general aviation airports, is threatening airspace safety and flight service.

Nick von Schoenberg, Pacific regional vice-president for the union, says as post-pandemic air travel increases, and airlines reintroduce routes, the pressures on air controllers will only increase.

“I don’t want to scare people that are getting into airplanes,” von Schoenberg said. “But there’s a limit. You just can’t keep pushing people that far, or that hard, for that long, without there being some implication on the level of safety.”

Von Schoenberg points to tower operations at Kelowna International Airport as an example. Air traffic controllers were forced to shut down early twice this year, and transfer airspace control to flight services specialists in Penticton.

Seven controllers currently work at Kelowna tower, when von Schoenburg believes there should be an allotment of 10. 

Von Schoenburg also says Nav Canada, the privately run non-profit corporation that owns and runs Canada’s civil air navigation system, has reduced the number of air traffic controller shifts in Kelowna.

“A number of controllers were working the maximum of overtime,” von Schoenberg says. “The company has taken the step of reducing staffing from five shifts per day to four … that’s something we strongly disagree with.”

In a statement to CBC News, Nav Canada’s manager of media relations Brian Boudreau, said “procedures are in place to ensure the highest level of safety is always maintained across the air navigation system.”

Boudreau confirmed the unexpected early shutdowns of Kelowna tower, stating overnight operations are transferred to Penticton daily, and both pilots and controllers are familiar with protocols.

“In these two events, and in similar events, neither airport accessibility nor safety was compromised; this remains a priority for Nav Canada,” he said.

Nav Canada, the privately run non-profit corporation that owns and runs Canada’s civil air navigation system, insists safety and service has not been compromised by pandemic layoffs (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press )

Von Schoenberg says operations in Prince George, Whitehorse, Victoria and Vancouver are similarly short-staffed.

NavCanada struggling through pandemic

In January, Nav Canada reported a “staggering” decline in flights through 2020 due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Air traffic plunged 60 per cent and revenues declined forcing the company to lay off at least 720 employees, almost 14 per cent of its workforce. The company also increased service fees by 30 per cent.

The company is now reversing some announced layoffs. 

Earlier this month, CBC news reported Nav Canada executives received around $7 million in bonuses in 2020. 

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