The crowded airspace over the oilsands

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It’s an industry boom that knows no altitude limit. As Alberta’s oil industry rapidly expands, efficiently moving workers to and from remote extraction sites has become vital. But as petroleum companies of all sizes increasingly turn to private planes and company-operated airports, the skies are getting dangerously crowded. “There is a mentality that, here in the Great White North, there is nothing but space and open skies,” says Bill Werny, vice-president of operations at the Fort McMurray Airport Authority. “That’s just not the case anymore.”

While many oil-sands airports consist of a few small planes on a single strip of tarmac, the biggest companies charter more flights than many of Canada’s top commercial airlines. Combined, oil-sands airplanes move roughly 750,000 people a year, more than municipal airports in St. John’s, Victoria, Regina or Saskatoon. But while the location of municipal airport tarmacs is regulated by Transport Canada, private tarmacs can be built wherever someone is willing to lease the land. At low altitudes, Werny says the only navigation technique available to pilots is to “see and avoid.” Near-collisions, he warns, are becoming increasingly common.

This month, following on the heels of a study by the Fort McMurray Airport Authority that found 47 private air strips in the Athabasca oil-sands region alone, Werny set up a round-table group including private airstrip owners. While oil companies are wary of having private airstrips become regulated, many are taking part to discuss safety problems. While the group has “no authority” to set regulations, it is a first attempt to improve oversight for congestion concerns that have grown too big to ignore.


The crowded airspace over the oilsands

  1. Regina and Saskatoon moved close to 1.1M ppl last year. I don’t know where this guy gets his numbers from.

  2. Sombody should really do their homework before writing an article…..or perhaps go to work for the National Enquirer. All of the four airports identified, St John’s, Victoria, Saskatoon and Regina move more passengers than Ft McMurray and none of them are “muncipal” airports.

  3. Victoria handled close to 1.5M passengers last year. Regardless, the writer is somewhat accurate that the private strips are not regulated – yet. If I was travelling to work on a private charter I would sure want to ensure that the landing strip had some sort of federal oversight.

  4. The level of journalism is atrocious at Macleans, starting with the erroneous data in pretty much every article involving …data. Nothing new, the only remedy is not reading MacLeans. I just made a mistake of having a look…

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