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Brace for food price hike
First Air costs go up as Iqaluit airport work prevents largest plane from landing

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Monday, June 29, 2015

Food prices across Baffin region will be going up this summer, but the measure should be temporary as First Air increases freight rates due to runway work at Iqaluit International Airport.

The six-week paving project starts July 7 and First Air will be unable to use its largest contracted plane, a Boeing 767, to bring in food.

"Anything smaller always comes with additional costs," said First Air vice-president Bert van der Stege. "Typically when it comes to cargo, the bigger the aircraft, the better the economics, if you can fill it. That's why the 767 is the optimal aircraft for us."

The 767, which contractor Cargojet flies five times per week to Iqaluit, can carry 19 positions. The next biggest plane, the 757, can only carry 12. But the cost of hiring the plane is not proportionally smaller, so the difference means the airline is implementing a temporary "Iqaluit Airport Runway Construction Surcharge", effective July 6, adding 32 cents per kilogram of cargo from Ottawa, Winnipeg and Montreal.

Van der Stege said the airline is ready if retailers want to get ahead of the surcharge.

"We're adding capacity this month to ensure anyone who wants to can send shipments in advance," he said. "Our largest customers are doing that already to stockpile a little. We can take extra cargo until the beginning of July."

The airline expects the work to last 30 days, but Economic Development and Transportation assistant deputy minister Jim Stevens predicted six weeks.

"It's just the 767 that won't be able to be accommodated during that six-week period," Stevens said. "The real closure is at night time, so scheduled passenger movements are allowed to land as is. All scheduled air movements will be accommodated, medevacs will be accommodated."

The work is a multi-stage replacement of the current runway.

"It's a combination of both (tearing up and paving)," he said, noting the work requires narrowing the runway during that period, hence the restriction on the 767.

"Basically, we have to cut deep into the runway to repair some deep cracks and settlement, and then there will be paving and shaping of the runway. By the end of the project in 2017, what you'll see is a new black surface runway."

There are no restrictions on any other planes that regularly land in Iqaluit, including the C-17 Globemaster military cargo jet, he said.

The work is part of the $300 million Iqaluit airport project, which will see a new terminal by 2017. First Air's van der Stege said the airline welcomes infrastructure investments, but would like to see more consultation.

"About 85 per cent of all food in Baffin is coming on the Boeing 767," he said. "Just planning a construction project and assuming that things will be fine without a 767 is just not that easy I'm afraid."

And van der Stege predicts the builders will find they've introduced headaches for themselves, in addition to the fact that Iqaluit's required 'visual flight rules' landings mean fog delays could aggravate the limited availability of fresh foods.

"We've just learned that a lot of the construction material is going up on the planned Boeing 767 which now cannot land, so it's going to be a bit of a challenge for the operator and the construction company to get all the materials up to Iqaluit," he said. "They're also subject to the surcharge, of course."

Although the surcharge is temporary, it could return. Stevens said similar runway closures will be required in 2016.

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