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Bernard Sévigny, mayor of Sherbrooke, Que.

Bernard Sévigny, mayor of Sherbrooke, Que.

Bernard Sévigny

Seamless air travel still a dream for 600,000 in Sherbrooke region Add to ...

When it comes to flying the friendly skies, some Canadians have an easier time than others. Seamless travel – whereby passengers board a plane at their local airport, have their luggage screened, and then connect to another flight without the hassle of a second security check – is supposed to be standard protocol for all airports servicing regions with a population of 200,000 or more.

Yet there is one part of Canada, home to 600,000 people, which is denied access to seamless travel: the region of Sherbrooke, Que. Despite living less than 100 kilometres from their local airport, passengers have to drive to Trudeau Airport in Montreal, or cross the U.S. border to airports in Burlington, Plattsburgh and Manchester. The region loses hundreds of millions of dollars annually as a result – money that, more than ever, it could sorely use.

In the last few years, communities in the region of Sherbrooke have suffered several major blows. In 2011, Thetford Mines lost its 130-year-old economic mainstay, when the Lac D’Amiante du Canada asbestos mine closed. In 2012, the Jeffrey mine in Asbestos shut its doors as well, putting 900 people out of work and crippling the local economy. Then last July, 74 rail cars carrying crude oil derailed, exploded, and incinerated downtown Lac-Mégantic, destroying 30 buildings and killing 42 residents.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Lac-Mégantic in November, Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche told him that development of the Sherbrooke airport is key to restoring the economic health of the region. This development will only be possible, however, if the federal government grants the airport a Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) designation, allowing for seamless travel to major hubs such as Trudeau.

CATSA was formed after the September 11 terror attacks to provide co-ordinated security at Canada’s airports. There are currently 89 designated airports across the country. The last designations were granted in 2004, to Red Deer, Alta., and Mont Tremblant, Quebec. At that time, then-transport minister Jean Lapierre commented that “This will develop new tourism opportunities, promote economic development and generate significant economic benefits for the Laurentides region.”

The same arguments apply to Sherbrooke, which has been pleading its case to the federal government for more than two years. Its airport has an airline partner ready to provide regular flights to Trudeau. The local business community is solidly on board. A study prepared by the University of Sherbrooke shows that seamless travel would generate up to 1,625 spin-off jobs and $163-million in annual economic activity. Meanwhile, the cost to taxpayers would be zero: travellers would pay $13 per one-way ticket, offsetting the $300,000 annual operating cost for CATSA services.

Ottawa claims that, for budget reasons, it does not want to increase the number of CATSA-designated airports. But it would not have to. Of the 89 airports currently holding a designation, eight are inactive, and some will clearly remain so. These include Mirabel, Que., which ceased receiving passengers in 2004, as well as airports that have downsized their operations, such as Charlo, N.B., and Alma, Que.

If the government wished to maintain a ceiling of 89 designations, it could simply transfer a designation from an inactive airport to the Sherbrooke airport. This was done in 2004 for Red Deer and Mont-Tremblant when the government took the La Grande 3 and La Grande 4 airports off the designated list. The government also revived two inactive designations in 2013, in Red Deer and Brandon, Man., when those communities asked for CATSA services to be reinstated – proof that the needs of airports, and communities, are not static, and that government policy needs to be flexible to accommodate them.

There are other airports across Canada, including Cold Lake, Alta., which are also hoping for a CATSA designation. The federal government is rumoured to have legislation in the works allowing for airports to be added to the designated list, which industry sources say may form part of its budget plans for 2014. But any bill will take time to be passed into law. This delay could jeopardize these airports’ relationships with their potential airline partners, and in Sherbrooke’s case, stall the economic renewal the region so desperately needs.

On Dec. 11, 20 mayors from our region will be meeting in Sherbrooke to call on the federal government to act now, and grant the Sherbrooke airport a CATSA designation before the end of 2013. We hope Ottawa hears our case, and takes action. This would ensure economic renewal and fair treatment for the 600,000 people affected by this decision. And it would show that the federal government is truly committed to helping the people in Lac Mégantic, Asbestos, and Thetford Mines enjoy a brighter future in 2014.

Bernard Sévigny is Mayor of Sherbrooke

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