Slave Lake Airport spared COVID impact

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

Any regional airport that had scheduled flights was hurt badly by the COVID-19 pandemic, says Pierre Gauthier, Slave Lake Airport manager. However, this didn’t impact Slave Lake, as its main income comes from wildfire and medevac (medical evacuations).

Medevac runs year round, says Gauthier. Slave Lake has one of the busier air ambulances in Alberta, with around 1,000 landings per year. The medevac is run by CanWest Air. Each time, the ambulance lands in Slave Lake the airport gets landing fees. Also, CanWest rents hangar and office space from the airport.

Alberta Wildfire has a tanker base and a Helitack (helicopter) base at the Slave Lake Airport. The wildfire season runs March 1 to October 31 in Alberta. During the busy season, there can be upward of 100 flights a day.

Slave Lake Airport (CYZH/YZH) also has some charter flights.

Asked about scheduled flights, Gauthier says, “There’s interest, but not enough interest. We’ve been tracking it.”

He started tracking requests on July 21, 2022. He figures most people would be interested in connecting flights for holidays, probably to Calgary. Since the airport in city centre closed down, flying from Slave Lake to south of Edmonton wouldn’t save people much time if their goal is Edmonton.

Also, he doubts people would be willing to pay the price of a scheduled flight.

A charter plane from Slave Lake to Edmonton costs $2,000 per person, he says. This is for a plane that holds up to eight people.

Running the airport
The airport manager’s first priority is airport safety, says Gauthier.

“Day to day operations is on us,” says Gauthier, referring to himself and Josh Broad, assistant airport manger. “We do a little bit of everything.”

This includes clearing snow and ice, keeping wildlife off the runway, and making sure the lights and other aspects of the runway are in good repair. He also liaises with Transport Canada, deals with tenants, prepares and maintains the budget, and plans the board meeting agendas.

Slave Lake Airport Services Commission runs the airport. It is a board with seven members: three town councillors, three M.D. councillors, and one member at large.

In 2022, Brian Vance was appointed as the member-at-large. He owns a private plane and rents a hangar at the airport.

The Town of Slave Lake also does the bookkeeping and either the town or M.D. provide a recording secretary for the meetings.

The airport receives about 35 per cent of its funding from local taxpayers and 65 per cent from landing fees, fuel fees, rentals etc.

At least two helicopter companies have hangars at the airport. There are also private hangars and tie-downs for planes.

The tie-downs keep the planes from being picked up by the wind.

However, not all of the airport’s rental income comes from aviation businesses. Animal Rescue Committee of Slave Lake shelter, a bit of Kal Tire, and Nelson Lumber are on airport property.

To allow planes to land, the airport has to control the height of buildings outside of the airport itself. It owns the land between Lesser Slave Lake and the treeline where Sawridge First Nation starts.

The Slave Lake Airport goes right up to the eastern shore of Lesser Slave Lake.

In 2020, the lake level was high and high winds caused a lot of erosion, says Gauthier. The airport lost enough land that it is now only 80 metres from the lake to the runway, which is uncomfortably close to the regulated minimum of 60 metres. The airport is looking into ways to stop the erosion and protect against another high-water event. The first solution was going to cost $4.5 million. The airport is looking for other options.

A few years ago, deer and moose on the runway were an issue, but not since the perimeter fence was installed in 2021.

In 2018, the airport resurfaced the tarmac. However, it’s cracking, because of an inflexible underlay. To fix this, the airport bought a crack-sealing machine.

“Hopefully, we can prevent more cracks from developing,” Gauthier says. By fixing the cracks as they appear, they can keep water out to keep them from deepening.

A medevac plane landing at Slave Lake Airport on March 20. In the winter, the medevac flights are the most common ones at the Slave Lake Airport. These continue year-round, but in the summer the tanker base sends up wildfire fighting planes, which vastly outnumber medevac flights.
Nav Canada runs a weather station at the Slave Lake Airport. People can view the weather from this station at
Airport manager Pierre Gauthier (left) and assistant airport manager Josh Broad with the 19-foot snowplow and 16-foot sweeper that they use to clear the runway. In the winter, a lot of their work is snow removal, so it is safe for planes to land and take off. The airport also has a large snowblower that it uses to clear the snow 25 feet from both sides of the runway.

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