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Edmonton airport closure affects medevacs

The territory's medevac services could be losing one of its major hubs. This summer, Edmonton city council voted for a phased closure of its city centre airport.

The territory’s medevac services could be losing one of its major hubs.

This summer, Edmonton city council voted for a phased closure of its city centre airport.

The Yukon uses this airport around 60 times a year, transferring patients in need of medical care.

Edmonton plans to reroute all of its medevac services to its international airport, which is located more than half an hour outside of the city.

This closure could cause a lot of headaches for pilots, nurses and patients, according to Alkan Air president Hugh Kitchen.

Alkan runs the medevac service for the territory.

“We’ve been to Edmonton three times in the last two days,” said Kitchen on Thursday.

“Edmonton is an important spot for us.”

The Yukon transports patients to Edmonton about five times a month on average.

That’s a little more than a quarter of all of the Yukon’s medevac traffic, with the majority heading down to Vancouver.

So what’s the problem with the international airport where Edmonton wants to reroute all of its medical traffic?

“It’s a nightmare to get in there and it’s just so far from everything,” said Kitchen.

“It really comes down to a duty day thing.”

Pilot’s are only allowed a 14-hour duty day, Kitchen explained.

After that, they have to get eight hours of sleep, which usually downs a plane for a good 10 hours.

Using the Edmonton City Centre Airport, transfers generally take 10 to 12 hours.

Patients have to be carefully loaded onto the plane, flown south, transported to the hospital, sometimes moved to a different hospital, then transported back to the plane and flown home.

Adding a half an hour drive to the equation, especially one subject to rush hour traffic, could push the turnaround time to the point where pilots exceed their 14-hour maximum.

This would ground the plane for 10 hours.

The plane would then be out of service and patients and medical staff would have to wait, at a cost to the territory’s health-care system.

“We can only absorb so much of the extra costs,” said Kitchen.

“Ultimately the expense goes to the customer.”

Yukon Medical Association president Rao Tadepalli isn’t too concerned about the municipal airport’s closure.

“Very rarely do we have something of such a critical nature where this will effect the patient,” said Tadepalli.

Most patients getting transferred for medical treatment are stable, so another 30-minute ambulance ride from the airport to the hospital won’t matter that much, he said.

And the territory’s medevacs generally go to Vancouver, said Tadepalli.

“It’s not a big issue. It’s more of a nuisance.”

It’s unclear when exactly the city centre airport will be shutting down.

In July, Edmonton city council voted for a phased closure, shutting down one runway “immediately” and the other at some point in the future.

The first will likely be shutting down in the fall of 2010, said Edmonton Regional Airport Authority vice-president of communications Traci Bednard.

“It’s not the one that’s used the most so the runway that is going to stay open is the more popular in terms of use.”

However, runway 1634, which is being closed, is equipped with an Instrument Landing System that helps pilots land in bad weather.

The second runway, runway 1230, doesn’t have this device and needs to be rigged with GPS before it can service the entire municipal airport.

It might have been more convenient to keep runway 1634 open, but it lies on prime real estate that council is eager to develop.

“The grace of city council’s motion was that it didn’t put specific time lines on,” said Bednard.

“Part of the intent of that was to allow the different parties to talk about transition plans and how to mitigate potential issues.”

For the Yukon, Vancouver will still be the most convenient destination for medical services, said Kitchen.

“But they plug the patient’s needs into the system, look at where they can find the expertise needed and that’s where you go.”

If Edmonton’s new setup proves to be problematic, the Yukon could lose access to the expertise located there.

Edmonton doesn’t only service the Yukon, said Kitchen who sits on the board of the Northern Air Transport Association.

Patients from northern Alberta, the NWT, Saskatchewan and even Manitoba make use of the downtown airport and will be affected by the closure.

Kitchen believes that the inconvenience of Edmonton International could drive the Yukon’s medical traffic to different hubs.

“I don’t know, maybe Vancouver can absorb the extra traffic,” he said.

“But we might end up going further, down to Calgary or Saskatoon, it depends where the services are available.”

Contact Chris Oke at