Hundreds of Abbotsford jobs at risk after government opts to replace C130s

Cascade Aerospace critical of government decision to buy new aircraft instead of upgrading existing search and rescue aircraft

Cascade Aerospace employs around 600 people in Abbotsford.

Hundreds of jobs may be at risk at one of Abbotsford’s largest private sector employers after Cascade Aerospace wasn’t awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to service and update Canada’s fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft.

The federal government announced Thursday that it would spend $2.4 billion to buy 16 new Airbus C295W aircraft, construct a new training centre in Comox, and provide ongoing services. Other options could increase the contract’s value to $4.7 billion.

Cascade says it had offered to upgrade the country’s existing C130 Hercules aircraft for $1.5 billion cheaper than the Airbus contract. The company currently services the C130 aircraft at its facility at Abbotsford International Airport, where the company employs about 600 people.

Ben Boehm, the company’s chief operations operator, criticized the government’s RFP process, and said a decision in favour of Cascade would have “protected over time about 300 jobs, long-term, in Abbotsford.” He said it would also have created many new jobs as existing aircraft were upgraded.

The company will continue servicing the C130 until they are replaced in 2019 and 2020. But as the aircraft come out of service, the company will have to find new work in order to continue the current level of operations.

Boehm is adamant that the company’s proposed solution was better than the winning bid. He said upgrading the C130s would have provided the latest in technology for a fleet “that was still in its prime” while saving billions. Of the 12 C-130 Hercules currently in service, one was built in the 1970s, several were built in the 1980s, and the rest were among the last C130s to come off the production line in the 1990s, Boehm said.

Boehm said the winning bid’s potential value of $4.7 billion also contradicts a specified requirement of the government’s request for proposal, which stipulated that the contract couldn’t exceed $3.5 billion.

“It was black and white,” Boehm said. “It’s disappointing in the fact that this was a 100 per cent Canadian solution. It was protecting Canadian jobs.”

In the end, because the government’s RFP stipulated a preference for new aircraft, Cascade wasn’t able to submit a formal bid.

Boehm said he had been to Ottawa multiple times a month since the spring trying to convey the company’s proposals to government decision-makers.

Nevertheless, Abbotsford MP Ed Fast told the House of Commons Wednesday that it “appears the Liberals have refused to consider [Cascade’s] proposal.

“This decision will kill hundreds of jobs in Abbotsford and will cost Canadian taxpayers dearly,” he said.

The following day, after the Airbus contract had been announced, Fast told The News the government didn’t actually seem to seriously consider Cascade’s proposal to upgrade, rather than replace, the current aircraft.

“Not only would it have given us the capabilities that the other aircraft were going to provide, but it would have given our aircraft a greater range than the other proposals that were on the table,” Fast said. “It means Cascade Aerospace has lost the opportunity to save Canadian taxpayers well over a billion dollars.”

In a statement, a spokesperson from Public Services and Procurement Canada said the $3.4 billion was a “notional budget” for the replacement of the aircraft.

“A capability-based approach was used, which means that industry was asked to propose the optimum solution in terms of the type and number of aircraft and where they would be based, in order to achieve Canada’s required search and rescue outcomes,” the statement said.

Fast also called on local Liberal MP Jati Sidhu, who represents the Matsqui-Mission-Fraser Canyon riding, to explain his government’s decision. So far, Fast said Sidhu had been “missing in action” on the file.

In a written statement provided Thursday, Sidhu said:

“The process to replace Canada’s search and rescue aircraft is very important. I’m proud of the work Cascade Aerospace does in Abbotsford, and I’m proud of the work this government is undertaking.

“The Government has explained that the fleet is almost 40 years old, the proposal would be a short term fix, and therefore would be insufficient to Canada’s long term needs.

“I’ve met with Cascade Aerospace in Abbotsford for an airport tour, and in my Ottawa office. They are an important contributor in Abbotsford’s economy, and I look forward to their continued success for years and years to come.”

This fall, The News reported that Cascade had issued layoff notices to dozens of workers.