Good morning. My name is Aaron Speer. I'm the vice-president of flight operations at First Air. On behalf of First Air I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to appear this morning to present some of the unique challenges that we face on a daily basis in our operations.
With 71 years of experience, First Air is a leading airline serving Canada's Arctic, where we provide scheduled service between 31 northern communities with connections to Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Edmonton. Ultimately, we have more destinations north of the Arctic Circle than south of it. Most of these communities do not have road access, so reliable air transportation represents the only means of year-round access.
Given our theatre of operations, we regularly face challenges and operational issues that are not faced by traditional southern airlines. Many of the airports in northern Canada were established during the Cold War. Since then, unlike many airports in southern Canada, they have undergone very little expansion and modernization.
There are limited approach procedures. While GPS approaches are prevalent in southern airports, they have not been deployed readily across the north.
There are limited lighting systems. Many airports are served with extremely basic approach lights. Visual glide slope indicators often are not available or are configured only for smaller aircraft.
There is outdated technology. The Iqaluit ILS has been off the air since early April, with no clear solution in sight since the failed components are no longer manufactured.
There are gravel runways. The bulk of our network is served by airports with often very short gravel runways. These runways limit the selection of aircraft that can be used and significantly increase our maintenance costs.
There is limited weather information. Many stations are not served by 24-hour weather reporting systems. While some progress has been made recently to expand the areas of coverage, we are often forced to make operational decisions without the benefit of weather reporting or forecasting.
There is limited fuel access. Fuel is resupplied once per year in most communities. When the fuel supply is exhausted it cannot be replaced until late the following summer. In the case of Taloyoak this year, we were required to operate for over three months without access to fuel at that station. Coupled with the distances between communities, the lack of fuel represents a significant operational handicap.
There is a lack of viable alternate airports. Given the limited approach procedures, limited approach lights, limited weather information, potential fuel supply limitations, and the large distances between airports, we are often heavily penalized by a lack of suitable alternate airports.
Without improved infrastructure at some communities we will ultimately be faced with only two options.
One option is that we will continue to operate with older technology aircraft to support those shorter runways. While this does ensure that there is service continuing to all the communities, the older aircraft will ultimately reach a point where they are not financially viable. At the same time, the older aircraft are not able to take advantage of all technological advances, in some cases including safety-related ones.
Our other option is to cease operations to those communities with the shorter runways. In this situation, the only option that would remain would be for a smaller carrier using smaller aircraft, likely a CAR 703 air taxi or 704 commuter operator, to introduce service to those communities. While that would ensure that the communities do continue to receive the service, those operators are not bound by the same stringent CAR 705 airline regulations that govern our operations.
Air transport is a lifeline to the north. From medical travel to food supplies, the populations of the north depend on our service to live their lives to the fullest. Without external investment in the northern infrastructure, our operation is not sustainable. At some point, should this investment not occur, a reduction in the level of service that we provide is inevitable.
I would like to thank you again for the opportunity to appear today before the committee. Given the number of witnesses who have appeared to date, I believe the committee does have a fairly good understanding of the issues facing the industry as a whole. I have limited my discussion primarily to the issues facing our unique operation in the north. Despite that focus, I would be pleased to answer any questions you have, whether they relate to the industry as a whole, the airline industry, or our operations in the north.