First Air dumps Resolute-Yellowknife flight
Will the North be divided between two airline monopolies?
The availability of jet service in Resolute Bay will drop by one-third this August when First Air dumps its weekly Resolute-Yellowknife flight.
“It’s closing,” confirmed Tracy Beeman, First Air’s director of marketing and communications. “We’re keeping the flights that go through Yellowknife and Resolute to the West through August.”
Beeman said the decision is due to a drop in passenger and freight traffic caused by the closure of the Polaris zinc mine at Little Cornwallis Island.
Beeman denied that First Air’s decision has anything to do with the airline’s recent layoffs and transfers affecting 24 flight attendants in Yellowknife. Yellowknife will still have 250 First Air employees, she said.
However, some Resolute residents wonder why First Air is giving up its lucrative Resolute-Yellowknife route, which usually carries more passengers and more cargo than its two Ottawa-Resolute flights.
“They want to concentrate on the eastern market, fill up the flights, lowball the contracts, and basically screw the Northerners,” said Resolute business-owner Aziz Kheraj. Although Kheraj is also the mayor of Resolute, he said he was speaking as a businessman, and not in his capacity as mayor.
First Air’s move could be part of a major repositioning by the North’s two major airlines, First Air and Canadian North, aimed at divvying up the northern airline market along East-West lines.
Eventually, this strategy would leave Canadian North with a monopoly over western traffic and First Air with similar degree of monopoly control over eastern routes. Under this scenario, the only shared market would eventually be the Ottawa-Iqaluit run.
First Air’s owner, the Makivik Corporation, is interested in persuading Nunavut Inuit to buy into First Air, perhaps enough to allow First Air to be treated as an Inuit corporation under the Nunavummi Nangminiqaqtunik Ikajuuti, or NNI, policy.
“We’re not going to give up on it,” Makivik president Pita Aatami said of Makivik’s plans to sell part of First Air to Nunavut Inuit.
To do this, however, they would have to deal with the fact that 50 per cent of their rival, Canadian North, is already owned by Nunavut beneficiaries.
Delegates at the recent Makivik Corporation annual general meeting in Tasiujaq discussed the issue, but part-way through, Aatami told interpreters to stop translating to prevent non-Inuit from fully hearing details of Makivik’s plans for First Air.
Like most businesses operated by Inuit-owned development corporations, First Air keeps its financial information a secret, so it’s impossible to say whether the company is making or losing money right now.
Although First Air is 100 per cent “Inuit-owned” in a general sense, First Air is not owned by Nunavut land claim beneficiaries, and therefore doesn’t qualify for special treatment under the NNI.
Its rival, Canadian North, has the same problem, since Nunavut beneficiaries own only 50 per cent of the company, not the required 51. But under a recently-extended grandfathering arrangement, Canadian North is still treated as if were 51-per-cent Inuit-owned.
Food mail threatened?
Passenger traffic from Resolute and other High Arctic communities going towards southern Canada has usually gone west through Yellowknife, Kheraj said. If Canadian North doesn’t step in to replace First Air in the Resolute-Yellowknife run, Kheraj sees a future filled with higher ticket prices and fewer seats.
For his part, Kheraj is concerned about food mail shipments to Resolute, for which First Air has the contract. He and many others in Resolute and elswehere in the High Arctic have traditionally made food mail orders through Yellowknife.
Kheraj’s South Camp Inn in Resolute alone orders 1,000 kilograms of food mail each week during the winter, and much more than that in the summer.
Kheraj doesn’t want to change his long-time grocery suppliers for Quebec-based companies.
“My position and that of my municipal council is that we would like to look to Canadian North to resurrect the Yellowknife, Resolute, Cambridge Bay run, and, in doing that, with the support of Arctic Bay and Grise Fiord, lobby First Air to release its food mail contract,” Kheraj said.
Reduced jet service from the West would also mean even less economic activity for Resolute, as cash-strapped Canadian polar researchers wouldn’t have enough money to get to the High Arctic for summer field work.
“The result is that we and our gear in Calgary [would] need to fly to Ottawa to get to Resolute and everything, including rock samples, gets taken out the same way. All this adds significantly to project costs,” said Christopher Harrison of the Geological Survey of Canada.
Canadian North is already showing an interest in linking up with the High Arctic market. The first step in this direction will be a new scheduled flight on an KingAir aircraft operated by its partner airline, Kenn Borek.
This aircraft, based in Resolute, will fly from Pond Inlet to Resolute and on to Cambridge Bay. There, passengers will be able link up with Canadian North jet flights to western Canada.
This service, confirmed Kenn Borek’s general manager Steve Penikett, could start up before the summer. He said the service may also be extended down the Baffin coast to join the company’s existing flights to Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq.
This recent turn of events doesn’t surprise Quttiktuq MLA Rebekah Uqi Williams.
“Money speaks,” Williams said. “Airlines have to be able to make money to keep flying.”
To draw attention to the High Arctic’s precarious situation, Williams has already suggested a “sitting on top of the world” would be an excellent theme for the Nunavut legislature’s fall session.
“A High Arctic sitting makes sense for a lot of reasons. For some time now the communities of the High Arctic have felt as though their concerns have not been heard,” Williams told the legislature in March.
“Sitting in Resolute Bay would demonstrate our resolve to listen to what the people have to say on such issues as the transportation crisis in the region and the pending closures of Polaris and Nanisivik Mines.”