The Fairmont Hot Springs Airport is sending out a mayday call.
The society that runs the rural airport is looking for additional financial support to run the facility and says if they do not find it, they may shut it down.
There are three directors on the Fairmont Hot Springs airport society: one is Vivek Sharma, CEO of Fairmont Hot Springs Resort (FHSR), the other two are shareholders at FHSR: Doug Fowler and Dave Bessey. Even though the resort funds the airport annually, and all the directors on the airport society come from the resort, he explained it is not a resort-owned facility but is an independent, non-profit association.
The airport was built in the 1980s. The resort owners at the time were “instrumental” in lobbying the government for funding to build the airport. When new ownership took over in 2006, Mr. Bessey explained, they felt an obligation to continue the financial support.
The resort has spent approximately $2 million to keep the airport operational since 2006, Mr. Bessey said, adding they spend anywhere from $150,000 to $170,000 each year. FHSR is getting tired of footing the bill.
“We need to find funding or the airport is at risk of closing,” said Mr. Bessey. “The resort cannot shoulder the load any longer.”
They have reached out to the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) as well as private businesses in the Valley. FHSR shareholders are looking to have a decision made by the end of this year.
“It doesn’t mean that will be a firm decision, but that’s our target,” said Mr. Bessey.
Rob Gay, RDEK Board of Directors Chair, said airport ownership is not foreign to the RDEK; they took over the Elk Valley Airport years ago and partnered with a local club for the operations. Mr. Gay has met with Fairmont to discuss the airport. Next steps would involve discussing it with the area directors, and deciding whether to do more in-depth discussions on a possible partnership.
“From a public interest, it wouldn’t be something we’d say an automatic ‘no’ to,” said Mr. Gay, citing the heavy use the airport sees during busy fire seasons.
“It’s very early in it, but I certainly see that as a potential opportunity.”
Area F Director Susan Clovechok met with former CEO Pascal Van Dijk, then again this spring with Fairmonts’s new CEO Mr. Sharma.
“I’m very interested that the Columbia Valley retains this airport,”said Ms. Clovechok. “It’s an important community asset.”
She said the RDEK will need to understand the impact on the community, the costs, what possible opportunities there are, and then make a decision as a group.
“We need to work together to find a solution for the airport,” Ms. Clovechok remarked.
Panorama’s CEO Steve Paccagnan agreed that it is a “tremendous asset” for the region, and serves as a life link for air ambulance transfers as well as other emergency services.
“Panorama Resort is very supportive of working collaboratively with community leaders and local government to find a solution,” Mr. Paccagnan said.
The airport is used by a number of different groups, such as firefighting crews and equipment, Medivac transfers, and corporate jets. Mr. Sharma reports that in 2018, there were 104 landings related to firefighting efforts, 29 medical evacuations and approximately another 287 flights (a mix of recreational flyers, people coming to buy fuel etc.).
BC Emergency Health Services says over the last three calendar years, there has been an average of one air ambulance call a month at Fairmont, with higher numbers during the summer months. Over the 2018/19 fiscal year there were 16; 29 in 2017/18, and 29 in 2016/17. The majority of air ambulance patient transports are to a higher level of care hospital in the Interior, BCEHS reported.
AirSprint Private Aviation also flies into the Fairmont airport. Vice president Scott Wenz said since June, the company has had 13 flights to Fairmont, many of which are secondary homeowners looking to access their property. If upgrades were done to ensure consistent winter maintenance, Mr. Wenz said that would encourage more of AirSprint’s fractional jet owners to come throughout the whole year.
The airport has received funding from other sources over the years for upgrades. For example, the BC Air Access Program contributed $59,902 over the last three years for improvements such as safety upgrades, electronics, wind generators, and concrete town replacements.