NNSL Photo/Graphic

NNSL photo/graphic

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Airline bosses grilled by premier
Few answers as Canadian North, First Air and Calm Air executives appear at legislative committee

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services
Monday, February 1, 2016

It was a bad year for flying in Nunavut in 2105 , and that's about the only point everyone agreed on Jan. 26.

NNSL photo/graphic

First Air president and CEO Brock Friesen, Canadian North president Steve Hankirk and Calm Air president Gary Bell met with the members of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly Jan. 26 to discuss the airlines' codesharing scheme instituted this past summer. - Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo

After listening to three airline bosses outline the realities of Northern aviation and the troubles they deal with, such as gravel runways wreaking annual million-dollar destruction on propellers and landing gear, Premier Peter Taptuna took a sharp tone at the unprecedented gathering with a full contingent of MLAs.

"In the history of the legislative government in the North, never before has one industry been asked to appear before the committee in this forum," said Taptuna.

"We take this session today very seriously and you should to."

The three airlines' switch to a codesharing scheme last July caused much ruckus across the territory and the three presidents repeatedly called the mayhem which followed the change "growing pains." All three - Canadian North president Steve Hankirk, First Air president Brock Friesen and Calm Air president Gary Bell - insisted their companies had made adjustments and the aviation industry in Nunavut was now better than ever.

For example, a new e-mail system has been developed to ensure blood samples, water samples, and medicines are given cargo priority. Also, flights have been added in and out of Kugluktuk.

And, in all fairness, there is the weather factor.

As Bell noted, "In all of 2015 we missed in Winnipeg once. In the Kivalliq in July alone, not mechanical, not crew issues, but weather

and runway issues resulted in 114 cancellations."

Meanwhile, Taptuna insisted, "Airline travel in Nunavut is not a luxury, it is a necessity."

Citing high ticket and cargo prices, the main concern the government of Nunavut expressed was a lack of competition. In fact the Competition Bureau, a federal agency, is investigating the situation and results from that investigation are pending.

During the proceedings, Hankirk said the greatest indication that the airlines are doing a good job is that no other airline is moving in to compete.

"Competition also means threat," he said. "That somebody else will come in and build an airline."

It's uncertain what the proceedings accomplished - Taptuna said he would follow up with letters.

However, as everyone sitting at the legislative assembly parsed through information and asked questions, a real threat was brewing.

FlySarvaq announced two days later on Jan. 28 it would introduce new routes serving Iqaluit with direct flights to Ottawa and Halifax in May. The cost of a one-way ticket to Ottawa? $499. A quick check of the cost of a one-way Canadian North ticket for the same route Jan. 29 yielded a quote of $801.

"It is our hope that this service will create significant possibilities for Nunavummiut looking to travel south, as well as open up more opportunities for people to visit Nunavut," said Adamee Itorcheak, president of Sarvaq, a partner in FlySarvaq. "Imagine being able to arrive from Nunavut and connect with upward of 30 flights going across the country or even internationally, or to travel to or from Arctic Bay to Ottawa in one day?"

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