Kelowna air traffic control facing staff shortages as pandemic winds down | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Kelowna air traffic control facing staff shortages as pandemic winds down

The air traffic control tower at Kelowna International Airport is seen in this submitted photo. Kelowna International Airport's air traffic control services have been suffering from interruptions and shut downs in service lately due to a lack of staff.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Kelowna International Airport
June 13, 2021 - 7:30 AM

Concerns are being raised about operating hours at Kelowna International Airport’s air traffic services as the pandemic restrictions slowly wind down along with the anticipated return to busier skies.

Canadian Air Traffic Control Association Pacific Division regional vice president Nick Von Shoenberg says there aren’t any simple answers for the current shortage of air traffic controllers at the Kelowna airport.

The situation has resulted in regular reports from Transport Canada of flight services either not operating as per published hours, of service unavailable or of the tower closed altogether in the past several weeks.

Shoenberg says a staffing crisis prior to the pandemic was made worse when COVID-19 hit, decimating the airline industry and revenue for Nav Canada, who operate the airport.

He says the pandemic added financial pressures to Nav Canada, exacerbating an already existing shortage.

“They simply don’t have enough people in the tower. Those that are left are up against it, and those that are doing it are doing a heroic job,” Shoenberg says.

Kelowna, which has a target staffing level of 11, is currently operating with seven flight controllers.

He says air traffic controllers are working more, getting more fatigued and burning out, reducing uptake for overtime and flexibility for on-call hours.

“Once you’re down a couple and you lose one or two more, as is the case in Kelowna, the impact is really significant,” Shoenberg says.

The situation isn’t unique to Kelowna, he said, White Horse, Prince George, Boundary Bay, Pitt Meadows, Victoria and Vancouver are all short staffed.

“Shifts normally encompassing two or three are now on their own, so they can’t take a break without closing the tower. For some shifts, there’s simply no one to work, and the tower has to shut down completely,” he says.

He says Nav Canada has been reducing the number of shifts per day to spread people out more evenly, which is reasonable.

“It puts more pressure on the people there, however,” he says.

When the Kelowna tower has to close, responsibility shifts to the Penticton tower, which is operated by flight services specialists that are part of a different union than the air traffic control association. He says personnel there are getting stretched thin as well.

Shoenberg fears the absences might get worse before they get better. There’s a lag between hiring, training and actually putting an air traffic controller to work, and the need is going to increase as the pandemic ends and commercial air traffic starts taking off again.

Not all airports in B.C. have suffered a loss of activity during the pandemic. Smaller airports such as Boundary Bay, Langley and Pitt Meadows are seeing an increase in air traffic, something he says not a lot of people are aware of.

“It could be due to out of work pilots taking jobs at flight schools, or pilots trying to keep current. Kelowna has also maintained air traffic to some degree, but the airport has a slightly higher component of commercial traffic and that’s taken a hit,” he says.

Shoenberg says the union is careful how it characterizes things with respect to safety, saying it’s hard to measure and quantify.

“It becomes obvious, the more people have to work and the more work they do alone without a break is not a positive situation,” he says.

He’s not trying to characterize Nav Canada as the ‘big, bad wolf,’ noting the agency has also been under a lot of pressure during the pandemic, losing most of its revenue and having to make some tough decisions, but he says there was a shortage or air traffic controllers before the pandemic, and this could have been the ideal time to deal with it.

“I’m not discounting the pressure and limits they were under, but the government could have been more responsive to the situation and recognized the special circumstances Nav Canada is under. It’s a not-for-profit company that generates its revenues from commercial traffic, and if that traffic goes away, how are they supposed to meet their obligations?” he asks.

Bruce Boudreau with Nav Canada media relations said in an email statement the company has standard procedures in place to ensure adequate staff are available to maintain operations at all time.

“This may include engaging nearby operations to provide support during periods of unexpected absences. These procedures are in place to ensure the highest level of safety is always maintained across the air navigation system,” Boudreau said.

Kelowna Airport Manager Sam Samaddar said he’s not involved in the administration of Nav Canada, but agrees with Boudreau there are procedures and policies in place that define how to handle those situations of staff shortages without compromising the safety of the aviation system.

He also pointed out nighttime operations at Kelowna Airport transfer to Penticton Airport’s flight services on a daily basis.

“There is a process and procedures that is followed. With respect to where we’ve been with COVID-19 and the reduction in commercial flights, we don’t have as much activity in our airspace as we did in 2019,” Samaddar said.

Pilots have procedures to follow for landing and taking off at Kelowna Airport should there be any service interruptions during the day, Samaddar noted.


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