Nunavut medical patients getting bumped under codeshare scheme

GN health department receiving complaints; airlines working out the bugs

By SARAH ROGERS AND THOMAS ROHNER

Nunavummiut medical patients, like these pictured here at Larga Edmonton, say a new codeshare agreement among airlines serving the territory is disrupting medical appointments and stranding patients in southern cities. (FILE PHOTO)


Nunavummiut medical patients, like these pictured here at Larga Edmonton, say a new codeshare agreement among airlines serving the territory is disrupting medical appointments and stranding patients in southern cities. (FILE PHOTO)

Aircraft from Nunavut's two biggest airlines, First Air and Canadian North, are parked here on the tarmac in Rankin Inlet last year. Airline code sharing agreements, which also include Calm Air, are enraging passengers all over Nunavut and affecting the quality of health care. (FILE PHOTO)


Aircraft from Nunavut’s two biggest airlines, First Air and Canadian North, are parked here on the tarmac in Rankin Inlet last year. Airline code sharing agreements, which also include Calm Air, are enraging passengers all over Nunavut and affecting the quality of health care. (FILE PHOTO)

Nunavummiut travellers across the territory say a new codeshare agreement among major airlines is causing disruptions to the delivery of health care inside and outside Nunavut.

And it’s a message flyers are now taking to their MLAs and government officials.

Timothy Tunguaq of Baker Lake brought his concerns to his local MLA and Nunavut’s health minister after his wife, who was on her way to a scheduled medical appointment in Winnipeg, was bumped from her flight.

Joan Atuat Tunguaq and her escort left Baker Lake Aug. 31 only to be bumped from their connecting flight in Rankin Inlet.

Tunguaq’s wife was fortunate — she made it to her appointment, albeit late.

But Tunguaq said it’s a problem he’s seeing more frequently since Nunavut’s three major airlines partnered up under a codeshare agreement.

“I don’t know how many others have had this happen to them and have stayed quiet,” Tunguaq said. “If this sort of thing is going to be happening this coming winter, we can see for sure lots of problems coming our way, with blizzards and whatnot.”

In the Kivalliq, a new airline codeshare between First Air and Calm Air went into place this past summer that sees the airlines jointly operate all flights in the region.

But only Calm Air aircraft service the communities now, which means fewer seats for Kivalliq flyers.

Regardless of the change “patients on medical travel shouldn’t have to be bumped off anywhere,” Tunguaq said.

He’s right: according to Government of Nunavut medical travel contracts with the airlines, patients have priority. That means GN medical travellers can bump other passengers when a flight is overbooked.

“We don’t usually do that, unless it’s an emergency,” said Bill Neish, who oversees corporate services for the GN’s health department.

“The impact of the codeshare, of course, is that they’ve reduced services, so we’re having to bump more people as a result of that.”

The priority is getting Nunavut patients to appointments in southern cities, Neish said. So if patients are getting bumped, it’s more often from return flights north, which means they’re staying longer in patient transit facilities, at the cost of the GN.

Neish confirmed the department has received a number of complaints from patients since the airlines’ agreement began.

When the agreement was implemented in the Kivalliq in early July, Calm Air actually touted the new codeshare’s connectivity, calling it “a big advantage for elders and medical patients.”

But travellers in that region, and others in Nunavut, are thinking otherwise.

In the Kitikmeot community of Kugluktuk, the new agreement between First Air and Canadian North has meant a drop from two flights a day to just one.

Kugluktuk resident Millie Kuliktana recently flew to Edmonton for a routine clinic visit with a specialist, but ended up stuck in the city when she was bumped from her return flight.

“And the government had to pay extra days for me to sit in Edmonton after my clinics were done, because the codesharing that’s happening now made no room for additional passengers coming home,” Kuliktana said.

In some cases, children are being separated from their guardians on flights, she added.

Kuliktana’s sister, the former Commissioner of Nunavut, Edna Elias, said the new scheduling has impacted medical-related cargo reaching the communities too.

Elias, who takes medication for a rare lung disease, said that in recent months, her prescription has been lost in transit.

“My prescription is critical… I can’t run out,” she said. “So now, it’s best for me to stock up for like three months.”

“We feel like we’re at the worst end of it here in Kugluktuk,” Elias added. “It’s good that the flights are full now, but it’s at the mercy of all these problems.”

For their part, the airlines say they are keeping on an eye on the new agreement with the goal of tweaking schedules where needed.

Canadian North said Sept. 3 that, overall, the new agreement “has been positive for customers and for the airlines.”

First Air said Sept. 3 it was not aware of any passengers being bumped from flights.

“The relationship between First Air and its partners is stronger than ever,” said spokeswoman Anubha Momin, “and we are constantly searching for new efficiencies and area of improvement.”

The GN’s current contract for medical travel with the airlines has been extended until Aug. 31, 2016, Neish said, while the department has the option to extend the contract another year.

“Right about now is when we’re trying to make that decision for next year,” he said.

“We don’t really know the impact that [the codeshare] is having on competition,” Neish said. “It may mean we take a different approach in the next RFP round. We don’t really know. We have to analyze this ourselves.”

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