January 26, 2021 By Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Starphoenix
The consolidation of two airlines is set to take flight in remote fly-in communities in Saskatchewan.
Transwest Air and West Wind Aviation will become Rise Air, changing the face of an air service that acts as one of the few links to southern resources.
“If we had been two separate airlines going into COVID, I don’t believe we would have survived,” said West Wind CEO Stephen Smith.
West Wind Aviation Group of Companies bought Transwest Air in 2016, but both airlines continued to use separate operating certificates, Smith said. Combining the airlines cuts it down to one and reduces redundancy. Rebranding will take place gradually, and Derek Nice will replace Smith as CEO on Feb. 1.
Smith said the consolidation is unlikely to immediately reduce airfares _ which are ongoing concerns for people in remote communities who say the costs of travelling south are too steep.
“The prices are sky-rising,” noted Black Lake First Nation Chief Archie Robillard.
The best way to help his community would be a longer runway in Stony Rapids, but that’s unlikely, he added.
It’s similarly costly to fly in and out of Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation, said Chief Bart Tsannie. He noted ticket costs are regularly several hundred dollars, which hasn’t improved as COVID-19 reduced passenger loads.
“That’s very expensive. People don’t have that kind of money in Hatchet Lake,” he said.
Smith said consolidating the airlines will make them more profitable, allowing Rise Air to invest in new aircraft and facilities. That could also mean a better position to pass profits on to its 22 per cent owner, Prince Albert Development Corporation, and its 65 per cent owner, Athabasca Basin Development, which represents seven communities including Hatchet Lake and Black Lake.
Smith said those communities haven’t received dividends in the last 10 years, which he hopes to change.
The Rise Air rebranding also comes after a difficult year. A downturn in mining and the onset of COVID-19 forced a 50 per cent cut to operations, Smith said. He noted operations are now up to two-thirds of their levels prior to the pandemic.
While the consolidation likely won’t affect the costs of airfare, Smith added that the airline continues to push the federal government to declare paved runways at Fond du Lac and Wollaston Lake. If it does so, aircraft taking off there can carry more weight, lowering some of the prices for those communities, Smith said.
“If we can reduce (fares), we will.”
Nick Pearce’s reporting is supported through the Local Journalism Initiative.