Fort Frances Airport sets fuel selling records

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

With wildfires spreading through the region, the Fort Frances Airport has been busy selling fuel and setting sales records in June and July.

Tom Batiuk, airport supervisor, said the airport has been very busy this year with the dry conditions and the wildfires that have been burning in the region.

“[The fuel sales] have been a blessing for us financially,” Batiuk said. “[Fires] began very early this year. I think we had our first fire in the region in March. We had helicopters here pretty much from the beginning of April until now with fast attack capabilities. This is the busiest fire season that we’ve ever had in the 11 years that I’ve been at the airport.”

Fast attack capabilities are having on-call fire crews stationed at the airport. If they get called, they get on a helicopter and respond to a fire.

Batiuk said the crews are stationed as soon as fire season begins. He added that they will usually stay for four to six weeks.

However, with the dry conditions this year, this period has extended tremendously.

Therefore, the Fort Frances Airport has been supporting the fire crews with equipment, washing their machines and providing jet fuel.

The airport also oversees helicopter and aircraft technical support. Batiuk said they have a maintenance garage and a meeting room for firefighters to do their COVID-19 protocols.

“With the dry conditions, anytime we get a lightning strike currently in this area has been resulting in a wildland fire,” Batiuk said. “Because of all of the fires that are burning in Ontario, they’re very quick to attack those before they get too big or large enough in size.”

The challenging part, Batiuk said, is being able to continue providing jet fuel, especially after catering to some spillover traffic from other airports.

He said some airports in the regions, such as Dryden and Kenora, have been out of fuel.

“When fire 47 was active, we had five helicopters here servicing that fire at that time,” Batiuk said. “When you’re pumping 6,000 to 8,000 litres of jet fuel a day, and you only have a stock of 40,000 litres, it doesn’t take long to run out.”

Thus far, Batiuk added, maintaining fuel supply has not been an issue for the Fort Frances Airport because they have some protocols in place that allows them to order fuel on a frequent basis.

The traffic resulting from the fires across the region accounted for the bigger bulk of movements at the airport in 2021.

There have been 634 movements in the airport in 2021, compared to the 1088 movements in 2020. Movements are the numbers of aircrafts arriving and departing from the Fort Frances Airport.

Batiuk added that the airport itself has been down in traffic, but Bearskin Airlines has started back with limited flights that began on July 5. They are operating one flight a day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Bookings are based on demand, Batiuk said, adding that it is still reduced compared to pre-COVID bookings.

“At this time, the reopening of the borders is for land crossing only. There is no air crossing into Canada other than at designated sites that were listed when they had the quarantine hotels,” Batiuk said. “Customs has no plans at this time to resume service at the Fort Frances Airport. I haven’t been given a date yet for when that’s going to change.”

Batiuk said that despite the low traffic, they received funding to purchase a new plow truck for the airport through the Airport Capital Assistance Program. This program allows them to apply for funding because they offer scheduled service to Bearskin Airlines.

Batiuk said it makes them very happy to see traffic movements return to normal.

“We’re an airport,” Batiuk said. “We like to see airplanes land and helicopters come and go. We’d like to recoup landing fees and passenger facility fees. It’s nice for us to start seeing things on the uptick with traffic even if it is only related to fires at this point.”