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Staff from Devon Energy load a North Cariboo Aircraft at the company's modernized airport near Conklin, Alta. (Todd Korol/Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)
Staff from Devon Energy load a North Cariboo Aircraft at the company's modernized airport near Conklin, Alta. (Todd Korol/Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)

Air Oil Sands: a new flight path in Alberta Add to ...

The rising sun turns the lakes of northeastern Alberta into a glowing orange as the Beechcraft 1900 dips toward the dark green forest that hides the oil sands.

Through the cockpit window, a narrow strip emerges, a ribbon of asphalt carved out of the towering evergreens. The descending plane follows a path similar to another small plane that a year before crashed just shy of the runway. One person died. The strip, called Kirby Lake, was taken out of regular use.

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But now the airstrip is being reopened. Up and down its 4,960-foot length, crews are working to upgrade lighting, smooth out terrain and install new navigational aids and weather-monitoring instrumentation. Oil producer Devon Energy Corp. , the operator, is spending millions on a modernization project intended to safely land the workers who will build and operate decades worth of new oil sands projects, wresting hundreds of millions of barrels of crude from the earth.

Soon, this line of asphalt in the forest will resemble the kind of municipal airport you might find in a small town. And for an industry that has seen air connections become nearly as vital as pipelines, Kirby Lake is but one dot on a map of northeastern Alberta that has grown crowded with private airstrips.

As a new oil sands boom sweeps across northeastern Alberta, energy companies are turning to increasingly sophisticated air squadrons in an attempt to balance their relentless demand for workers with an urgent need to stave off soaring costs.

Call it Air Oil Sands. Industry giant Suncor Energy Inc. alone moves enough people that it would rank somewhere between Canada's `10th- and 12th-largest airline. Several oil sands companies operate fully functional airports, complete with baggage handlers, and have filled out employment rosters with pilots and mechanics. One airplane charter outfit engaged in oil sands work is bringing in new airplanes so fast it doesn't have time to paint them before they start flying workers.

“The scale is enormous,” says Scott Clements, chief executive officer of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority, shaking his head.

The fast-growing aviation industry taking root in the oil sands provides a window into the scale and complexity of expansive projects enveloping ever-greater parts of Canada's capital spending and work force. Oil sands companies are going to great lengths to secure workers as the industry’s runaway growth creates another crunch period, marked by sharply rising costs for materials and increasingly scarce skilled labour.

Flying around personnel isn't cheap. It costs roughly $42,000 a year to air-commute a single person to the oil sands. But that cost has been justified by companies eager to find and retain skilled workers that often aren't interested in moving to Fort McMurray – or some of the hinterland operation sites that sit hours away. In fact, labour is already so expensive that it can be cheaper to fly a worker on a private jet directly to site than to swallow the additional hourly cost of having that worker fly on a commercial airline to Fort McMurray, then sit on a bus for several hours.

“Time is money and the schedule is crucial,” says Scott Bolton, national energy leader with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Aviation “is a means of accessing skilled labour quickly.”

“The cost of flying in skilled labour, and the infrastructure of doing that, is obviously expensive,” Mr. Bolton said. But “it’s the best means of accessing somebody that’s trained and can hit the ground running.”

For workers, air travel provides convenience, since it allows people to get picked up at or near home. Oil sands companies run flights to Calgary and Edmonton, small communities across Alberta, major centres in Saskatchewan, and a handful of cities on the East Coast. That creates an effective expansion of the available labour pool.

Private air service is also a perk that can keep employees happy, an important consideration for companies who know training a single worker costs, at a minimum, $25,000. Some cost twice that.

In-flight frills are key. Suncor, for example, provides workers with a muffin or banana bread on the flight. When it tried to pull the banana bread recently, it was met with an outcry. The company reversed the decision.

“We are a service provider,” said Bill Grainger, Suncor's director of transportation. “Our employees actually quite like flying on our own aircraft. It's sort of an ownership thing and a pride thing – that I go to work on our aircraft, and I go direct to site.”

A LABOUR ADJUSTMENT

Track the numbers, and the link between boom times and oil sands air travel becomes clear.

Six years ago, Suncor flew just 800 passengers a month. Today, it flies 25,000.

Alberta’s dramatic rise helps explain why. In early December, the number of workers employed in the province’s resource sector surpassed the peak it hit in 2008. And much more work is coming – new oil sands mines and other projects that haven’t begun.

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