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Closure of Edmonton airport may hurt rural Albertans

The closure of the Edmonton Municipal Airport will have a serious impact on medical services in rural communities, according to Wendle Umble from Alberta Central Airways, located in Lac La Biche.

The closure of the Edmonton Municipal Airport will have a serious impact on medical services in rural communities, according to Wendle Umble from Alberta Central Airways, located in Lac La Biche. His company provides medevac, or air ambulance services, to communities such as St. Paul, Elk Point, Bonnyville, Lloydminser, Provost and Lac La Biche and he is concerned about the ongoing debate in Edmonton to close its city airport. Edmonton city council has already voted to slowly close the facility.

“This adds about 45 minutes to an hour to getting a patient to the hospital if we have to fly into the international airport,” said Umble. He explained that Edmonton’s municipal airport is located in the centre of the city, only blocks from the Royal Alexandra Hospital, which specializes in emergency services. There are ambulances parked at the airport so once the patient arrives, it only takes about 10 minutes to get them to the hospital. If the air service has to take the patient to the University of Alberta Hospital, the ride may take 15 minutes.

If the service flies to the International Airport, the flight is longer because it involves flying over Edmonton. Then the patient must be transported much further back to the city and to a hospital.

“Probably to 80 per cent of the people that we transport, the extra 45 minutes won’t make a difference, but to about 20 per cent that are in auto accidents or that have lost a limb, it matters,” said Umble. “It’s just a shame that it’s closing. To me, it’s just closing the door to the north.”

Trevor Funk, a paramedic in charge of the medevac program at Alberta Central Airways, confirmed the company staff is faced with life-threatening situations on a regular basis and that for these patients, transport time can be critical.

“We are doing about two (flights) a day into that (municipal) airport,” said Funk. However, he explained there are eight other airports that also fly patients into the city centre airport daily. He estimates that about two patients per day could be put at greater risk because of the time difference caused by flying to the international airport. “To me, that is a lot.”

Robert Bouchard, reeve for the County of St. Paul, said county council has fought for years to try to keep the city centre airport open and feels it is of great importance to rural communities. If the city centre airport closes, he believes there will be fewer fixed wing medevac flights from the area as it is almost as quick to drive to the city by ambulance.

Local MLA Ray Danyluk said he whole-heartedly supports the municipal airport. However, he said that the provincial government must also respect the autonomy of municipalities.

“I absolutely support the airport. It is important for my constituents and for all communities in Northern Alberta. It is important for business,” stated Danyluk by phone interview. “But this is under the jurisdiction of the city of Edmonton. If we were to interfere every time we disagree with a decision made by municipalities, then there would be no point in having municipalities.”

Helicopter services can fly directly from rural to city hospitals. However, airplanes can fly in weather that helicopters cannot and can fly for greater distances without having to re-fuel.

“The fixed-wing airplanes fly in a variety of weather conditions that helicopters can’t,” said Umble, explaining that because airplanes have de-icing equipment, they can fly in freezing rain and because they can fly lower than helicopters, they can also fly in foggy conditions.

Other airports in the Edmonton area, located at Villeneuve and Cooking Lake, are also farther from larger, city hospital and don’t have bad weather landing facilities. The City Centre Airport used to have an Instrument Landing System (ILS) to help planes land in snowy or foggy weather, which these other airports do not. However, because the City of Edmonton has been gradually cutting back on its city airport services, the municipal airport no longer has an ILS.

A petition by Envision Edmonton to hold a public vote on the closure of the airport, with more then 80,000 names, was recently rejected by Edmonton city councillors because many of the signatures were declared invalid. After reviewing the petition, city staff estimated that only 73,657 signatures were valid, short of the 78,244 names needed to force a plebiscite on the issue. The petition also wasn’t brought to the city within 60 days of Edmonton’s council’s decision to shut the airport. However, the airport’s future is becoming one of the election issues in the Oct. 18 city council race.

“There are people who come in and tell me that because of our service, they are alive and walking around today, so I just think it is sad,” said Umble of the possible closure of the city centre airport.