Flight training schools in Vancouver are angry at being grounded due to a no-fly zone to be introduced as part of security precautions for the forthcoming Winter Olympics.
They say it is going to cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue while still having to pay salaries, rent, insurance and utilities.
Instructors will not only be out-of-pocket, but will also lose flight hours needed to qualify for airline jobs. International students, who make up the bulk of the classes, must pay living costs while waiting for the airspace to reopen.
“We are a victim of geography”, said Mark Stierli, Operations Manager for Professional Flight Center, located at Boundary Bay Airport, just south of Vancouver. Stierli’s instructors and maintenance crews will be laid off or forced to take vacation.
The flight schools affected by the flight ban understand and support the need for air space restrictions. However, during the consultation process, the length of the no-fly zone was doubled from four to eight weeks.
“That’s what’s really raised the ire of the industry,” said Patricia Kennedy, Chief Operating Officer of Pacific Flying Club.
Listen to the concerns of those affected by the airspace ban:[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2009/12/Flight-School-Voicer.mp3]
Compensation sought by flight schools
Industry associations are lobbying hard for government compensation, with the Air Transport Association of Canada asking for $3-5m.
The industry has been compensated before. It was provided following the five-day shutdown of airspace during 9/11 and the G8 conference held in Alberta in 2002.
The impact on the schools’ bottom lines spreads beyond the Olympic period because prospective students are postponing training or looking for schools not affected by the ban.
“It’s devastating,” said Kennedy. Close to 200 employees will be affected at Boundary Bay, where more aspiring commercial pilots are trained than at any other site in Canada.
Between lost revenue and operating costs, Pacific Flying Club expects to take a financial hit of about $300,000.
“There is a significant trickle down effect that’s going to hit this airport,” said Kennedy. Suppliers of aircraft fuel and maintenance parts will also be affected.
Students suffer from flight restrictions
Student pilots will not be permitted to practice their skills in a thirty nautical mile circle centred on Vancouver International Airport. The area is bordered by Ferndale, Washington in the south, Nanaimo harbour in the west, Pemberton in the north, and Abbotsford to the east.
Learning to fly is hands-on and practice is critical. After a two-month break students can’t just start from where they left off, but need to relearn to gain back their skills.
The only option for students wanting to fly is to practice at Abbotsford, 35 nautical miles east of Boundary Bay. This triples the cost of a lesson due to the added flight and instructor time, and fuel costs required to make the return trip.
Even this option brings no guarantee. Abbotsford Airport will be an official portal for aircraft wanting to enter Vancouver airspace.
Flights not screened at their home airport must land there and go through security checks before flying to Vancouver. Airspace and ground facility reservations are already reaching capacity.
Enforced by jet fighters
The RCMP is responsible for leading Olympic security planning. In its assessment of potential threats, it identified two involving aircraft: their use as weapons or for suicide attacks. The airspace shutdown is in response to these threats.
To reinforce the serious nature of the ban, Transport Canada states; “It is incumbent upon all aviators to review … Emergency Procedures – Interception of Civil Aircraft.” Breaking the rules will result in interception by Canadian or US fighter jets.
The Canadian Air Force has advised aviation operators to remain calm, and maintain direction and altitude if intercepted. Any pilot who strays from flight regulations can expect to see an F-18 fighter 10 to 15 feet away from their wingtip.
Officials were aware of the potential cost to businesses, employees and students. An impact analysis issued by Transport Canada found that, “flight schools would also be highly impacted, given proposed restrictions on their operations and the potential for temporarily reduced revenue streams.”
Industry associations have been meeting with the RCMP-led 2010 aviation committee since August of 2007. While the consultations did result in the addition of security screening at Boundary Bay Airport, the business impacts on flight training schools remain.