LITTLE CURRENT—Mayor Joe Chapman called for the seasonal closing of the Manitoulin East Municipal Airport at last Tuesday’s Northeast Town council meeting.
The mayor’s comments concerning the airport were no surprise to Councillor Marcel Gauthier, who sits on the Manitoulin East Municipal Airport Commission with Mayor Chapman, where the mayor previously discussed the possibility of closing the facility for the winter at the commission’s last meeting on January 9.
“It’s simply losing money in the winter,” stated the mayor to council. “All the expenses are in the winter, but no revenue.”
Mayor Chapman explained that council is looking for ways to save money for taxpayers in all areas of the municipal budget, and should be considering making the airport a seasonal facility.
“I’m not an airport basher, but perhaps the time has come to downsize,” said the mayor who is also a pilot. “We need to save money. We are raising taxes on seniors and low income families and we need to look at any costs we have control over.”
The mayor stated that CAO Dave Williamson will be working with Manitoulin East Municipal Airport manager George Dobbs, looking at the airport’s finances and preparing a report for council.
Councillor Gauthier spoke to the mayor’s statements, explaining that he respectfully disagreed with Mayor Chapman and that he felt the airport should remain open year-round.
“December was not a great month for the airport,” admitted Councillor Gauthier, “but we normally just have two bad months out of the whole winter. Airport staff is already cut down to the bare bones in the winter months. We need this facility year-round for numerous branches of government and for medical emergencies.”
Councillor Gauthier went on to explain the different daily tasks that must be completed by airport staff throughout the winter.
Since the fuel tanks are not emptied for the winter, Councillor Gauthier said that the aviation fuel storage tanks are required to be sampled and the results recorded on a daily basis. As well, he explained that the Ministry of Health requires that the small municipal water system at the facility is sampled daily and recorded, the non-directional beacon (NDB) navigational aid has to be inspected and logged daily, a surface condition report needs to be sent each morning to the London Flight Service, the water pump house and water service box must be checked for temperatures or possible leaks, and the walkways are required to be cleared and sanded due to the fact that the airport is a municipal facility.
Councillor Gauthier added that some tree cutting is required in the winter as well as, customer service, janitorial duties and that the fuel records, traffic and sales need to be recorded.
As for the airport’s use during winter months, Councillor Gauthier told council that a medical fixed wing plane and helicopter utilize the airport in the winter.
“On average, there are two to eight air transfers that use the airport per month,” stated the councillor. “Access to this service is critical for the local hospital as the transfers supplement the helicopter transportations and in fact replace those helicopter transfers when specific weather conditions exist because of the need to use ‘instrument flight rules’ or cover longer distances which are more suited to fixed wing aircrafts.”
Councillor Gauthier referenced correspondence from Derek Graham, CEO of the Manitoulin Health Centre, to support his point.
“We estimate that during the winter months, between three and six patients would require fixed wing transport,” stated Mr. Graham in his email on the subject. “The key factor to consider is that usually this is a very critical level of patient requiring fixed wing transport and they are most often travelling to a specialty centre in southern Ontario. Time is certainly a factor for these patients when fixed wing transportation is required.”
Mr. Graham adds in his email that, “without access to the eastern airport, additional ground transport time would be required to either the Gore Bay-Manitoulin Airport or to Sudbury. In some instances, this additional time for transportation will have an impact on the patient’s condition, decreasing the likelihood of a favourable outcome.”
The Expositor spoke with Mr. Graham after the council meeting to hear more of his thoughts on the possible seasonal closure of the airport.
“We obviously understand that the town has to find a balance between services and cost,” said Mr. Graham. “We hope that year-round access can be maintained. We think that it has great value.”
Councillor Gauthier also relayed to council that oncologist Dr. Michael Bonin uses that airport all year round to travel to Manitoulin and provide care to his Little Current patients. In addition, Bruceland Air has twice weekly flights from Centralia (near Goderich) with individuals working on the swing bridge renewal.
He added that Hydro One, search and rescue helicopters, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the OPP, RCMP, the new hotel’s architect Jeff Perry and a number of other individuals also rely on the airport year-round.
Councillor Al MacNevin added to the discussion saying, “I approach trying to cut costs, but a great deal of effort went into transitioning the facility originally from seasonal to year round. We need to weigh all factors, not just money.”
Since the Manitoulin East Municipal Airport is funded two-thirds by the Northeast Municipality and one-third by Assiginack, the Northeast Town Council will have to consult with Assiginack council.
The Expositor spoke with Assiginack Township Reeve Bud Rohn to hear his thoughts on the potential winter closure of the airport.
“I certainly don’t think the airport should become seasonal,” stated Mr. Rohn. “I don’t want to see it shut down in the winter months for a few dollars difference. I disagree with Joe (Mayor Chapman) completely on this point.”
Mr. Dobbs had a similar point of view when The Expositor spoke with him, but he said he understands that the town has to look at ways to save money.
“We won’t fully know the ramification of seasonally closing the airport unless council makes that decision,” said Mr. Dobbs. “As manager of the airport, my concern would be the effect on the airport customers and its revenue stream if we close for the five winter months, as I’ve heard was suggested. We would lose some hangar tenants. There could also be some ramifications in converting the airport to seasonal as far as attracting, or being eligible for, future funding.”
He also commented on the airport’s funding and development over the years and how it has benefited the community.
“This airport has had six completed development/expansion projects over the past several year,” said Mr. Dobbs. “Agencies such as FedNor, the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund (NOHFC), the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleagues and Universities (MTCU) and individuals in the private sectors have invested considerable funds to improve our airport infrastructure. Over the years, those dollars have filtered down into the community in the form of wages for construction workers and for the purchase of building products from local suppliers. The end product is the airport’s increased ability to generate it’s own revenue stream through rental units.”
Mr. Dobbs echoed Councillor Gauthier’s comments about government agencies and medical aircraft utilizing the airport year-round.
“The usual winter customers at our airport are government aircraft such as OPP, MNR, RCMP, Coast Guard and air ambulances,” said Mr. Dobbs.
He told The Expositor that, for example, an OPP helicopter was refueled at the airport for search and rescue and that Bruceland Air will be flying two charter trips this week, transferring crews working on the swing bridge.
“Closing the airport for the winter months could limit our opportunity to attract owner/pilots and keep achieving the modest budget surpluses we have historically been able to generate,” added Mr. Dobbs.
Gore Bay-Manitoulin Airport manager Robert Colwell commented that, “I don’t like to see an airport close or reduce services and I feel for Manitoulin East Airport’s situation.”
Mr. Colwell said that he understands the challenges of running an airport, especially the cost of operating an airport in Northern Ontario.
“We in the airport business are constantly dealing with new challenges, making it more difficult to sustain operations,” said Mr. Colwell. “It is unfortunate the situation being experienced by Manitoulin East Airport is not isolated to them alone and is being felt by many other small, general-aviation airports across the province. For Northern Airports it is inevitable the winter season brings added costs to operations while generating lower revenues resulting from reduced traffic movements.”
Mr. Colwell added that he would hate to see the facility reduced to a seasonal operation, but that Gore Bay will remain a year-round facility and that in the event that the Manitoulin East Municipal Airport is reduced, the Gore Bay Airport is “well positioned to provide the essential services during times of their closure.”
For now, council will await the report on the airport before reaching any recommendations.