Airships’ time has come in the north

Judy Klassen knows first-hand the importance and the dangers of ice roads. That’s why she endorses the research of cargo airships as a solution to the transportation problems in the north.

The interim leader of the Manitoba Liberal party is the MLA for Kewatinook, a riding that includes more than half the remote fly-in communities in Manitoba. She spoke about ice roads and airships this month in Winnipeg during the Vision Quest Trade Show that highlighted aboriginal businesses, culture and opportunities for economic development.

From her personal experience using ice roads to reach remote communities, Klassen knows to always travel the precarious routes with someone else, never alone. She recounted her own close call, breaking through the ice in her SUV; fortunately, she was close to shore.

Klassen, who is originally from St. Theresa Point, told how her parents made the trek south every winter to load the truck with $1,000 worth of supplies.

This made sense because prices for food and supplies in remote communities are up to three times higher than they are in Winnipeg.

Klassen related her efforts to encourage a healthy diet at the snack bar of her laundromat, but a fresh apple can’t compete with a pop and a chocolate bar when the costs are similar. She reminded the audience that bad diets lead to the epidemic levels of Type 2 diabetes in the north, which result in a huge health-care burden to the taxpayers in the south.

Even if climate change were to reverse immediately, the economic and social conditions in the remote communities would continue to be characterized by high unemployment, bad housing, low incomes, poor health and boil-water restrictions. However, the trend of climate change is well-established and conditions are getting worse.

In the past 20 years, ice roads in Manitoba have lost half of their season. The end of the ice roads is in sight. Then what?

Airplanes are too expensive to replace ice road trucks. Similarly, the cost of building gravel roads is outlandish in a terrain of peat bogs, muskeg, swamps, outcrops and many water crossings. The road-building experience of the NDP government on the east side of Lake Winnipeg should give everyone pause. In six years, they built less than one-eighth of the 852-kilometre total, and added close to $400 million to the provincial debt.

With this background, the discussion at last week’s trade show turned to the potential of cargo airships as an alternative to ice roads and small airplanes.

Global interest in airships is expanding rapidly. Just as in the case of wind turbines and electric cars, entrepreneurs are recognizing the virtues of this green technology and its potential as a cargo transport.

A presentation reviewed the locations of development in France, Germany, England, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, U.S., Canada and China. The different approaches were compared with respect to the aircraft structure, buoyancy control and ground-handling systems.

Finally, two issues were given special attention from the perspective of service to northern Manitoba — cold-weather operations and ground infrastructure.

Those living in Western Canada understand the impact that temperatures below -25 C have on equipment. Cars do not start, pipes freeze and the railways lose 30 per cent of their efficiency.

It would be foolhardy for any airship developer to simply fly here during the winter season without proper testing. No large hangar exists where airships can go to safely test their equipment in cold-weather conditions. Until there is the ability to prove that cargo airships can operate year-round in Canada, they will not be insurable, if allowed at all.

A hangar for cold-weather testing would also encourage airship development in Manitoba. No airship developer is going to attempt operations, even in the summer, without a base for maintenance and inspections.

Klassen has a remarkable number of firsts. She is the first female MLA to be elected in Kewatinook, and the first Liberal to sit in this NDP stronghold. She is the first female First Nation member to be named the interim leader of a mainstream provincial political party. She is also the first of the current political party leaders in Manitoba to endorse the research of cargo airships as a solution to the transportation problems in the North.

Rather than the NDP government’s 16 years of studying airships, she wants to see the technology put to the test.

The plight of the north demands more than talk.

Barry Prentice is a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba.

Read the entire article on Winnipeg Free Press