What’s going wrong at Canadian airports?

What's going wrong at Canadian airports? Many of us who have been hanging around airports for some time will agree there has been a change in aviation that has not always been beneficial to the public. I tried to think where, and how, these changes hav

Many of us who have been hanging around airports for some time will agree there has been a change in aviation that has not always been beneficial to the public.

I tried to think where, and how, these changes have come about, and I came up with the following problems and causes:

• There is a one-size-fits-all approach to regulating airports and aviation. This is almost always inefficient and often ineffective.

• The devolution of airports to the provinces and some municipalities from Ottawa. This went with funding that is deposited into general revenues and it becomes hard for managers to leave it targeted towards aviation once they have the ability to assign it to other priorities.

Now, the provinces and municipalities find themselves threatened by the federal level with budget cuts if they fail to meet the letter of the law at airport facilities, an expensive level of performance the feds themselves never met while they had the authority.

This devolution has created a mishmash of rules and rule makers. Transport Canada is the original champion of convoluted and pseudo-legal regulations and policies that even a lawyer has trouble reading. The provinces and municipalities add their own rules (building, zoning, development and so on).

Today, no one knows exactly what the rules are, a situation that’s not helped when those rules are applied by bureaucrats who make no separation between what is actually law and what is really just policy.

Is it any wonder that approvals for anything are nearly impossible. (Lex malla, lex nulla.)

Competing land-use pressures make long-term survival of airports uncertain. (Every airport would be more valuable to someone as a real-estate development.) And don’t forget the not-in-my-backyard component. We commonly hear in the media of people who didn’t mind moving into a “deal” condo in a subdivision under the approach for runway 29, but now find the noise unbearable.

Increasing costs and deteriorating infrastructure are common. Most of the existing aviation infrastructure was built when there was one decision maker in charge (Ottawa), funding was relatively unlimited (i.e. the 1940s and ‘50s), and when building costs were much lower. Much of the Canadian aviation infrastructure is approaching the end of its projected life.

Public perceptions are often false, based on little knowledge or limited experience, and, hence, their expectations are also unrealistic. This makes it difficult for politicians and managers to make tough decisions.

Most North Americans believe that so long as some Big Air Company continues to be available to take us to our winter vacation whenever we want, things must be running OK. And most believe that air travel must be safe Ð look at the inconvenience and effort that the regulators make before they let me onto that flight.

Few will consider the possibility that costly security, which has now become a priority buzzword across the country, might be coming at the expense of facility maintenance, aircraft maintenance or both.

Government perceptions are often wrong. Bureaucrats regularly turn to lawyers to determine the “reality” of perceived problems. Anytime someone, somewhere, sues the government, they respond to reduce their liability. Their first response is to create more rules. In a bad situation, if someone else can be shown to have failed to live up to the rules given to them, then the minister is safe. Who will complain? (The politicians won’t.)

Their second preferred approach is to demand more insurance. The creation of more “deep pockets” redirects lawsuits. There is an argument that more deep pockets frequently provoke more lawsuits, but who’s going to complain? (The lawyers certainly won’t!)

And, finally, with rules so detailed and convoluted that they are nearly impossible to comply with, responsibility will ultimately be found to rest on the insured, who then find themselves outside the limits of their coverage. (The insured might complain, but the insurance companies certainly won’t.)

Invalid circular arguments distract from actual issues too. An example is that the public demand for safety is often fueled by government’s own rhetoric and media sensationalism. The focus then is a need to be seen to do something. More expensive responses and more dramatic responses are often equated with more competent responses. So, who is going to complain? (An unknowing public won’t.)

Until you have experienced the hypocrisy of the existing system governing aviation it is hard to imagine how prevalent and entrenched it is.

The concern is that we have stepped onto a slippery slope that ends with the lost viability of most of the general aviation system here. The only solution I can see is to recognize these causes and educate as many people as we can about the situation.

George Balmer


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