Seven communities could see cheaper fares and freight rates

Canadian North launches battle for Baffin

By JOHN THOMPSON

Canadian North plans to expand its scheduled service into seven Baffin communities as of April 1, a move that could lead to more choice and cheaper air fares for many Baffin residents.

Igloolik, Pond Inlet, Clyde River, Qikiqtarjuaq, Pangnirtung, Cape Dorset and Hall Beach have all been added to the company's April schedule. The airline plans to service these routes with Dash-8 aircraft.

The new routes offer rates that significantly undercut the prices of Canadian North's main competitor, First Air.

For example, a return flight from Pond Inlet to Iqaluit in April costs $1,150.80 with Canadian North. That's $500 less than the same flight offered by First Air, at $1,652.70.

Kelly Kaylo, Canadian North's vice president of marketing and sales, said the current prices are regular fares, not discounts.

"They'll be what you see year-round," she said.

There's no sign yet that First Air will match the price drop. Its vice-president of marketing and sales, Jim Ballingall, said he believes Canadian North is only offering a seat sale, and that the company will eventually raise rates to match First Air.

"There is no difference in fares," Ballingall said.

In any case, the entry of Canadian North to Baffin communities is being warmly greeted by some residents who hope competition will drive down ticket prices.

"It's a big deal," says Philip Paniaq of Pond Inlet, who had quipped several months earlier, at the annual general meeting of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., that "the only people who can afford to travel are government workers on duty travel, bootleggers and drug dealers."

He expects lower ticket prices will let more North Baffin residents visit neighbouring communities. Right now, he says many residents are unable to do so unless a relative has died, making them eligible for a bereavement discount.

Food and other goods in North Baffin communities may also become cheaper, if airline competition drives down freight costs. Canadian North plans to offer freight rates that are, on average, 10 per cent less than First Air's Baffin rates, Kaylo said.

Canadian North's route expansion also means more Baffin residents may access the company's Pivut fare, which offers Nunavut beneficiaries each one ticket at half-price once a year.

Some of Canadian North's Baffin routes are slower than First Air. Its flight from Pond Inlet to Iqaluit makes one stop and takes an hour longer than the two-and-a-half hour direct flight offered by First Air.

But the Canadian North flight offers a warm meal. First Air doesn't.

In any event, with rates just two-thirds the price of a First Air ticket, it's unlikely many passengers aboard Canadian North will complain about the additional wait.

First Air offers its own discount to residents travelling between communities in Nunavut, with a sale at Christmas that offers rates as low as $99. The company plans to offer a similar sale this summer, Ballingall said.

As well, both companies are preparing to sink millions into their cargo and hangar facilities in Iqaluit this summer.

The battle for the Baffin has begun. Already, one smaller airline has been squeezed out as a result.

Unaalik Aviation announced this week it will drop its flights from Iqaluit to Cape Dorset, Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq as of March 23. As well, its flight from Resolute, Pond Inlet and Igloolik will no longer continue to Iqaluit.

"In such a small marketplace it is not viable for three airlines to compete on these routes," Jimi Onalik, the company's president, said in a press release. "Unaalik Aviation is the smallest scheduled carrier in Nunavut and is not in a position to compete."

Canadian North's Baffin expansion is tied to the Government of Nunavut's lucrative medical travel contract, which is expected to be finalized soon.

Canadian North and First Air currently share scheduled medical flights for patients who require specialist care in the South. But Canadian North currently has none of these flights in the Baffin. And the company says it often doesn't receive the 40 per cent share of flights it's supposed to get.

In March, at NTI's annual general meeting, Canadian North representatives promised to expand service to the Baffin and offer cheaper fares in exchange for a piece of Baffin medical travel.

Canadian North's Kaylo confirmed that her airline has been offered a share of Baffin medical flights by the government. "Definitely, that's part of it," she said.

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