Yellowknife strangers become friends in chaotic trip home
Yellowknife residents stranded in Alberta banded together in a desperate bid to get home for Christmas, helped by northern airlines.
Dozens of families from the NWT have been hit by cancellations affecting not only Yellowknife flights but onward travel across Canada, driven in part by bad weather at Vancouver Airport and its knock-on effects.
Whether trying to leave or return to the NWT, finding a flight with any seats at this time of year is tricky at the best of times – without additional planeloads of frustrated passengers searching for any way to get home.
“I’ve never seen it like that, ever. It was really crazy,” said Yellowknife resident Kerry Thistle of her experience at a chaotic Calgary Airport on Tuesday evening.
Thistle and her daughter, Madison Penney, had flown with WestJet from Edmonton to Calgary – WestJet no longer flies direct to Yellowknife from Edmonton – to catch a connecting flight back to the NWT.
But when their Calgary-Yellowknife flight was cancelled, Thistle and Penney ended up joining forces with other Yellowknife residents to drive back to Edmonton overnight and board Air Tindi’s special Wednesday flight home.
Thistle told Cabin Radio she had been in line for one of the few remaining rental cars at Calgary Airport when the man ahead of her noticed her Yellowknife sweatshirt. He turned out to be Sam Embleton, who was also trying to get back north for Christmas. They agreed to share a car.
Penney bumped into her friend Mira Mercer at Calgary Airport, who was in an identical situation, trying to return to Yellowknife from university. Lexie Letzing, meanwhile, was coming back from a family visit in Kelowna when she discovered the final leg of her journey had been cancelled. Then she saw Embleton.
The five of them acquired one of the only rental vehicles left and hit the road for Edmonton at around 12:30am on Wednesday. They had no bags as WestJet told them connecting passengers could not retrieve checked items.
“We realized none of us were getting our luggage, which kind-of worked out because we were so squished in this rental car,” said Letzing.
Having heard of Air Tindi’s one-off Edmonton flights this Christmas, Letzing had the presence of mind to message the airline’s Facebook page late on Tuesday night in the hope of snagging tickets on the Wednesday departure to Yellowknife.
“I just want to say a really big kudos to Air Tindi,” she said. “They responded to me instantly and said they would send my name to the reservations team. Honestly, it was very smooth.”
‘Karma coming our way’
Bob Schnurr, Air Tindi’s business manager, said the airline dispatched a full flight of 41 people south from Yellowknife to Edmonton on Wednesday and, as of 4pm, had only a few seats left on the flight from Edmonton back north.
“Seats sold quickly, with the phone ringing off the hook first thing this morning after additional scheduled flight cancellations,” Schnurr said in a text message. “I think our southbound flight was full by 10am.”
Stories of people pooling resources and scrambling to Edmonton for an Air Tindi flight had already reached Schnurr.
“Air Tindi has been amazing,” said Thistle, adding that Canadian North – which flew from Edmonton to Yellowknife on Wednesday – helped Mercer and Embleton get home.
The irony of having initially flown from Edmonton to Calgary only to drive back for the Air Tindi flight was not lost on Thistle.
“They flew us to Calgary and now it has cost us $420 to rent a car and drive back to Edmonton, and $450 each to fly on Air Tindi,” she said.
“We don’t know if we’re going to get any money back [but] we’re lucky. We don’t have little kids.”
At least one other friend, said Penney, was still waiting to hear if they would be rebooked with a larger airline.
“She’s heard nothing from WestJet. It’s crazy. They’re just leaving people stranded,” she said.
In a series of tweets, WestJet stated: “We sincerely apologize to those who have been impacted by cancellations/delays due to winter weather. We understand your frustration, especially at this time of year. Our teams are working to re-accommodate you as quickly as possible, where possible.”
The airline invited customers who can “proactively cancel” their bookings, freeing up space for those whose flights never took off, to get in touch.
“We still haven’t had an email from WestJet even saying our flight is cancelled,” said Thistle on Wednesday afternoon, nearly a day after the flight was scrubbed. She said another woman trying to get from Calgary Airport to Edmonton had taken a $500 cab to complete the journey with rental cars hard to find.
“We got to know each other on the drive,” said Letzing of the five-Yellowknifer group’s voyage north, which ended with a few hours’ snatched sleep at Penney’s Edmonton university accommodation.
“You really get to see what Yellowknife and northern hospitality is like. You pay it forward, and maybe there is some good Christmas karma coming our way.”