Leaders express disappointment with changes to Canadian North airline
May 5, 2023 By Emily Blake, The Canadian Press
YELLOWKNIFE — Northern leaders say they are disappointed with changes that allow Canadian North to increase prices and reduce flight service in remote communities, but the airline says it will be better able to meet demand.
Ottawa announced late last month it had approved new terms and conditions for Canadian North’s merger with First Air. Those include permitting the airline to reduce community service to one flight per week and increase fares up to 25 per cent within a calendar year.
“People across Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are rightfully concerned about the cost of travel in the North,” Nunavut NDP MP Lori Idlout said in a statement.
“After speaking with the company and expressing my concerns, I’m hopeful that northerners won’t see an increase in their costs, but I will continue to keep a close eye to ensure prices and services are fair.”
Canadian North serves 25 communities in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern Quebec, as well as Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton.
In many northern communities, air travel is the only way to travel year-round and the cost of living is higher than elsewhere in Canada.
The Canadian government initially approved the merger in 2019 with conditions meant to protect the public interest. A report by the Competition Bureau expressed concerns the merger could result in a lack of competition, price increases, and reductions in passenger and cargo capacity and flight schedules.
Last month, Transport Canada said changes were needed as the COVID-19 pandemic had affected Canadian North’s ability to comply with those rules and remain financially viable. The department noted the airline was exempt from scheduling obligations during the pandemic and received $138 million in federal funding.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra was not made available for an interview, but his office said Canadian North must adjust any route’s capacity or schedule if passenger load exceeds an average of 85 per cent for six consecutive months.
The airline has already made changes to its summer flight schedule.
Some routes will see increased capacity, more than doubling on flights between Inuvik and Yellowknife. The airline is also adding a new route between Iqaluit and Yellowknife.
Other communities are to see service reductions, the greatest being by 50 to 54 per cent between Norman Wells and Yellowknife and Norman Wells and Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.
The airline said in a statement the changes are meant to reallocate capacity to where demand is needed. For Norman Wells routes so far this year, it has seen an average of 10 passengers on planes with 80 to 100 seats.
Canadian North added while some communities will have fewer flights, they will benefit from direct service rather than sharing aircraft with multiple communities.
Norman Wells Mayor Frank Pope said he’s concerned about “surprise cuts” on flights in and out of the community from seven to four days a week. He said residents already face high living costs and rely on the airline for medical appointments, economic development and tourism.
“Seems that we’re just at the pointy end of the stick all the time and I don’t think people in the south realize just how tough it is to live in the North,” he said. “We live here because we like it but, boy oh boy, we’re going to be losing more and more people here who do like it, but can’t afford to live here.”
The Sahtu region, where Norman Wells is located, accounts for a quarter of Jackpine Paddle’s remote guided canoe and kayak expeditions, said owner Dan Wong.
Wong said the flight reductions have been stressful and “a huge waste of time” for him and his guests. He said two people have cancelled trips planned for this summer, resulting in a loss of $14,000 gross revenue, while others have been able to find alternate accommodations.
“It was just super boneheaded, like seriously dumb the way they did it,” he said of Canadian North’s flight changes. “They could have avoided much of this disruption to northerners and northern businesses by just simply reaching out in advance.”
Canadian North acknowledged it was “not successful” in sharing its plans with every community. It said it would review flight demands and ensure communities were served to required levels. The airline added it didn’t expect the changes to affect medical passengers.
“We are committed to continuing this service and will always strive to make life better in the communities we serve,” it said in a statement.
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