Staying up in the air: Upgrading Nunavut’s airport lifelines

Nunavut depends on gravel runways to connect it to the outside world, and road links between Nunavut’s communities do not exist, making them heavily dependent on military-built airports handed down from the federal to the territorial government.

A 2014 report tabled at the legislative assembly this spring outlines about half a billion dollars’ worth of work that needs to be done to bring the territory’s airports up to current safety standards and meet future needs of residents of the territory.

Most airports date back to the late 1950s or 60s, though many have been upgraded or have been moved, according to a Government of Nunavut spokesperson. While the runways are well maintained, only two of the territory’s 25 airports are paved. Gravel runways cost a lot to maintain, can damage aircraft, and limit the types of planes that can be flown. Fifteen airports in Nunavut operate with visual approach procedures. Airports that lack instrument landing systems lead to delays when bad weather forces pilots to postpone landings. This adds to the cost of doing business for airlines — costs that are passed on in the form of higher prices for everything in Nunavut, from diapers to doorknobs. 

Jim Stevens, assistant deputy minister of Nunavut’s department of Economic Development and Transportation (ED&T), says his department is working on improving approach systems: “Our whole focus is getting runways equipped with GPS approaches.” If GPS systems are installed at airports, he says they will enable pilots to safely land in conditions where clouds are closer to the ground than is now possible without such systems.

ED&T is also working towards paving more runways. Two factors make runway paving in Cambridge Bay a priority: air-traffic growth and the near obsolete planes that serve the community. The creation of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in the community is driving the growth, but airlines will soon be retiring the gravel-capable jets that service the regional hub. The government must either pave the runway or accept the consequences of higher costs related to smaller, less efficient planes servicing the airport.

Realizing the strategic importance of the Cambridge Bay airport, ED&T has already upgraded the terminal building, while recent work on the runway brings it almost to the point where it can be paved. Paving, however, creates a “new set of maintenance events,” according to Stevens. The smoothness of the asphalt means more equipment needs to be in place to provide the proper grip in the winter, but this is offset by less maintenance needed in the summer months to deal with rain.

Brian Tattuinee, former First Air employee and former manager at Nunavut’s Sarvaq Logistics, thinks the money for airport upgrades should come from “a majority government in power who campaigned on infrastructure spending. Where better to spend it when the infrastructure gap, particularly the transportation infrastructure, is so far behind in Nunavut?” he says. Stevens agrees that the Nunavut government has a role to play in continuing discussions with the federal government. One possible avenue of funding upgrades might be through a new Northern Airport Capital Assistance Program, he says.

Stevens also points out a long list of improvements made to Nunavut’s airports since the 2014 report came out, including upgrades to terminal buildings in smaller communities and the creation of pre-construction reports that are needed to make the case for funding. Airport improvement projects compete with many other needs for funding in tight supply, he says, but the projects are “slowly working through the capital planning process.”◉

Photo: A prop plane that rolled off the assembly line in 1942, though rebuilt to modern standards, is parked on the tarmac at Iqaluit’s airport. Airlines continue operating older aircraft in Nunavut to serve airports with short gravel runways. Credit: Brian Pehora

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that Nunavut depends on “WWII era relics”. This phrase could give the impression that the majority of planes and airports servicing Nunavut date from the 1940s. Northern Public Affairs and the author regret creating this false impression.

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