The crowded airspace over the oilsands

Welcome aboard Air Congestion
In this photo taken Tuesday, July 10, 2012, a Nexen oil sands facility seen from a helicopter near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Nexen is being acquired by China National Offshore Oil Co. in a US$15-billion deal that, if successful, will be China’s largest ever overseas acquisition. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

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.