OTTAWA—The decision of a private company to close the air traffic control tower at Buttonville airport is sparking concerns from pilots, who say the complex mix of traffic at the facility and its setting — busy airspace above a dense urban environment — make controllers necessary to safely control aircraft.
Nav Canada, the not-for-profit company that runs the country’s air traffic control system, has announced that it will close the airport’s tower on Jan. 3, citing a decline in traffic in recent years.
The company will also shut down 24-hour weather reporting at the airport, forcing pilots to rely on reports from other area airports, where conditions can sometimes be significantly different.
In a report assessing the potential impact, Nav Canada concluded that closing the tower and weather services would “not materially impact” safety or the efficiency of operations.
But the airport operator and local pilots say that risk assessment was based on low traffic levels at the time, which have since doubled, and charge that Nav Canada is putting its bottom line ahead of safety.
“For that they’re willing to risk lives in the skies and on the ground around here,” said Robert Seaman, the airport’s general manager and vice-president of operations.
On Tuesday, Frank Scarpitti, the mayor of Markham, where the airport is located, issued a statement saying he is “deeply concerned.”
“Safety is of the utmost importance and this decision is irresponsible and not in the public’s interest,” said Scarpitti.
David Sprague, president of the Buttonville Flying Club and a regular airport user, said it’s “blatantly obvious” that Nav Canada is compromising safety with the closure.
“I think it’s unsafe and short-sighted and stupid,” he said in an interview.
Buttonville airport handled 26,108 flights in 2017, down dramatically from 122,386 flights in 2013. Sparking that decline was the airport’s uncertain future and the looming redevelopment of the airport. That prompted many commercial aviation outfits to move their operations elsewhere.
But Seaman said he now expects the airport to remain open for another five years, and that extended time frame has encouraged operators to return to the airport. “The numbers are significantly up and growing,” said Seaman.
Nav Canada’s assessment of the need for a tower was completed in October 2017. Just a month before that, a new flight school moved to Buttonville, contributing to the rebound in traffic.
Nav Canada spokesperson Ron Singer said the company delayed the scheduled closing of the tower this summer to collect more data on the upward trend in traffic.
“We did monitor the traffic over the summer and it really has stabilized. It’s not near where it’s going to need a control service,” Singer said in an interview Tuesday.
Critics say the numbers are misleading, since Nav Canada only counts traffic when the tower is open. And the tower hours have been scaled back this year — from 16 hours a day to nine — meaning that Nav Canada is lowballing how busy the airport actually is. “They’re using bogus numbers,” Sprague said.
Once the tower closes, pilots will use a common radio frequency to report their intentions, their positions and sort out potential conflicts with other aircraft. Nav Canada notes that such procedures are in place at many other airports.
“The arrival and departure procedures for uncontrolled aerodromes result in a safe and orderly flow of traffic and have proven effective at these and higher traffic levels,” Nav Canada said in its study assessing the tower closure.
But pilots say Buttonville presents unique challenges and risks — a complex mix of light aircraft and commercial jets and turboprop planes, its location below the busy flight path into Pearson International Airport and its location in a dense urban area — which dictate controllers to guide the traffic.
“Sometimes you have to look past the numbers to look at operational safety,” Seaman said.
He says controllers are needed “to keep it from becoming a mess.
“It’s nothing to have to five, six, seven aircraft in the circuit here now,” Seaman said.
Seaman said he has appealed to Nav Canada to keep the tower open for another year, given the upswing in traffic, and even offered to waive the rent for the tower and weather office.
Nav Canada funds its operations through fees charged to airlines and aircraft owners. But Singer denied that financial considerations played a factor in the decision to terminate services.
“It’s never about dollars. It’s about providing the right level of service,” Singer said.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Monday that Transport Canada would monitor the situation. “If it turns out that there are issues with closing the tower, we will be prepared to consider other options,” he said.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier