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Aviators, doctor, and an MLA say Edmonton airport closure is a threat to Northern health. Above is Adlair's medevac lear jet at Cambridge Bay. - Photo courtesy of Paul Laserich

Medevac flights at risk

Tim Edwards
Northern News Services
Published Friday, May 21, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - Last summer's decision to close the city centre airport in Edmonton may cost Northern taxpayers more money and cost lives, according to a Northern pilot and a Yk MLA.

Doctor sounds alarm

Dr. Joseph T. Fernando, is a licenced physician based in Edmonton. He is campaigning against the closure of the Edmonton City Centre Airport because he says the risks to patients are too high.

Fernando said the extra flight time into the city by helicopter from the Edmonton International Airport, about 30 minutes in good weather, could mean the difference between life and death. Fernando said every minute matters in cases where there is massive blood loss or heart problems.

"Pilots have told me that they could get out of the city centre airport and push a patient to the Royal Alexandra Hospital faster than flying in a helicopter from the international airport," said Fernando.
He said as a result of this closure "someone will lose a life."

Currently, medevac flights, which land in the city centre, can have a patient in a hospital within minutes of landing, according to Paul Laserich, Northern aviator and co-owner of Adlair Aviation Ltd.

Adlair has been flying medevacs since 1983 and "We did (a medevac flight) a couple of Fridays ago and we saved someone's life, going from Cambridge Bay to Edmonton," said Laserich.

He said the flight took about two hours and 20 minutes, bypassed Yellowknife, and went straight to Edmonton's city centre.

Laserich said every minute of the flight counted and had it been delayed by flying to the Edmonton International Airport instead of the city centre, it may have affected the success of the flight. Laserich wouldn't go into details about the patient, but assured Yellowknifer it was a very serious situation.

"The city airport saves lives and can you put a value on a human life?" asked Laserich.

Laserich said in smaller communities the wait times for medevac flights are already long, as sometimes there are extra factors hindering access - such as needing to plow the runway after a blizzard.

Also, with only one airport in Edmonton, any flights that can't land at the international airport due to bad weather will have to go an extra 300 km to Calgary.

On July 8, Edmonton city council approved a motion to close the city centre airport over time, starting with the closure of one of the airport's two runways on Aug. 3, 2010. No date has been set for shutdown of the second runway.

At an Edmonton city council meeting it was suggested the airport site could be used for an expansion of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

Doug Horner, the Alberta minister of Advanced Education and Technology, told the Edmonton Journal, however, that his department was not considering the land for a NAIT expansion.

On Monday, Kam Lake MLA Dave Ramsay cited the closure of the airport during his member's speech in the legislative assembly.

Ramsay said the City of Edmonton is "showing little regard for the safety and well-being of our residents."

"Make no mistake about it, Mr. Speaker, the closure of the Edmonton City Centre Airport will increase health risks for NWT residents," said Ramsay.

Ramsay said patients will deal with "longer flight times and riskier hospital transfers."

On average, the city centre airport receives about 1,000 medevac flights from the NWT, and about 100 of those are emergency flights, according to Ramsay.

If the flights are redirected to the international airport, that will add about 30 minutes of travel from the airport to the hospitals in the city centre, if weather conditions are ideal. These flights into Edmonton from the airport, which is about 30 km outside the city, would be made by helicopter.

Ramsay said a STARS helicopter would cost about $2,500 an hour - which means, for 100 emergency flights in ideal weather conditions, there would be at least an extra $125,000 on the GNWT bill per year in health care costs once the airport closes.

He asked Health Minister Sandy Lee what the exact cost will be. She did not provide an answer but said "obviously, if there's extra costs we would have to absorb those" and said her department is working with the City of Edmonton to "make sure that NWT patients are part of the equation."

Laserich, who lives in Lee's Range Lake riding, said he thinks she's "missed the boat" on this issue, and said he left her an "interesting" message on her phone.

"I've yet to see her consult or ask any of the air carriers (about this)," said Laserich.

Laserich said he and the other members of the Northern Air Transport Association (NATA) sent a letter of concern to the mayor and city council of Edmonton outlining these issues and received no response. Besides Adlair, the transport association's membership includes Buffalo Airways, Canadian North, Air Tindi, North-Wright Air Ltd., and First Air.

Laserich said another factor is that the medevac flights would cause a lot more congestion at the international airport. They would be given priority for landing, causing extended waiting times for flights leaving. Due to that higher congestion, the medevac planes may not be able to take off again right away, stranding those plane sand the NWT's critical care nurses, which Laserich said are few in number, in Edmonton.

"These guys can't see the big picture," said Laserich.

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