Direct Yellowknife-Toronto flights 'being considered'
Yellowknifers lamenting Air North's drastically reduced Ottawa service could soon be looking forward to direct Toronto flights.
The NWT's Department of Infrastructure told Cabin Radio an airline is considering introducing a Yellowknife-Toronto service.
There is no timeline for the service to be implemented and no guarantee the airline – which was not named – will go ahead with the plan, but the option is "being considered," said Michael Conway, the department's regional superintendent.
"One of the carriers now is considering a route direct to Toronto," Conway said by phone on Wednesday afternoon.
"What I can tell you right now is we are working with an air carrier, we are looking at the passenger volumes. It's confidential, obviously, and there is an awful lot of work done before a new route is selected."
Conway spoke two days after Air North confirmed its Whitehorse-Yellowknife-Ottawa route will be reduced to a shadow of its former self from January 2019.
The twice-weekly scheduled service will remain in place until January, but will then be mothballed until June 2019, when it will resume for three months. The route's fate after September is unclear.
A direct service between Yellowknife and Toronto is likely to be, if anything, more popular than the Ottawa route among Yellowknife residents – though the ultimate proof would lie in how many passengers actually book tickets.
That was a complaint from Air North's president, Joe Sparling, earlier this month as the airline considered its options for the Ottawa service.
Sparling said governments – both territorial and federal – had not made as much use of direct flights to Ottawa as he had hoped. The territorial government challenges this, saying Air North never worked with the territory to set up what is known as a standing offer agreement, which would have made it significantly easier for territorial staff to book Air North's flights.
Even Sparling himself, asked about that by Cabin Radio, appeared not to really know what a standing offer agreement was. "I can’t say whether we have looked into it or not, quite frankly, but I am pretty sure we are not party to a contract," he said.
'Actually quite pleased'
Sparling and Air North have also hit out at Yellowknife Airport for increasing its landing fees and enacting an airport improvement fee paid by passengers, which Air North says has contributed to decreasing enthusiasm for its flights.
Conway told Cabin Radio the fees were no longer a talking point for other airlines using the airport, and both passenger numbers and aircraft movements were up.
"We are actually quite pleased with the amount of traffic we are getting at this time, and the opportunities playing out here at the airport," he said.
"At this point, now, we're not looking at fees so much as ways to improve the services for the people that use the airlines, use the airport, live in the city, and the tourists coming in to visit us."
The fees are governed by legislation, meaning they are not easily altered or removed. Conway said other options could be explored, such as increased marketing, to help Air North if it wanted to bring back the route.
"We are very open to helping them, and working with them to drive passengers in and out of Yellowknife. We want to see that flight continue as well," he said.
Below, find a transcript of Cabin Radio's interview with Department of Infrastructure Regional Superintendent Michael Conway.
This interview was recorded on November 21, 2018.
Ollie Williams: You will have heard and read Joe Sparling's recent comments on behalf of Air North. What did you think of what he said?
Michael Conway: We have to look at the big picture. Since the new method of running the airport started, we have seen fees increase nine percent in 2017 and an additional six percent in 2018. So we know passengers are up during this period; we know aircraft landings and takeoffs are also up, 11 percent in 2017 and an additional six percent this year to date. We are actually quite pleased with the amount of traffic we are getting at this time, and the opportunities playing out here at the airport.
Note: The Department of Infrastructure contacted Cabin Radio after reading this published transcript to state Conway should have said passenger numbers, not fees, in his above answer.
What have you heard from other airlines? Have you heard similar concerns?
We work with the Airline Consultative Committee, a group of all the airlines that operate at the Yellowknife Airport – Air Canada, WestJet, First Air, Canadian North, Air North of course. We had a meeting last week. When we are working together, we're not normally talking about the fees per se. We're talking about ways to improve passenger experience, on-time performance, the ways the carriers can operate, and their efficiencies. That's generally the kind of discussions we have now.
So you haven't really heard from any other airlines in the past, even, about this?
In the past, when we were first looking at the transition, we had a number of consultation meetings with different airlines. I think the airlines recognize that Yellowknife had the opportunity, now, to be like the airports throughout the rest of the country, and it made sense to be self-sufficient from the airport's perspective. We've had those discussions in the past. At this point, now, we're not looking at fees so much as ways to improve the services for the people that use the airlines, use the airport, live in the city, and the tourists coming in to visit us.
Do you think Air North is being a little unfair?
I think Air North has to, you know, operate from its own perspective. I don't think I can really comment on fairness or anything like that. But I can tell you that Air North was at our last consultative committee meeting and we are very open to helping them, and working with them to drive passengers in and out of Yellowknife. We want to see that flight continue as well. I think there are lots of opportunities for us to work together with all the airlines, continue to drive growth, and get these increases going every year.
When I spoke to Joe Sparling, Air North's president, a little earlier in the month – about what it would take to make it easier for Air North to keep the route – we talked about things like reducing the landing fees paid and the airport improvement fee. Are those options that could be looked at?
The actual landing fees, general terminal fees, and airport improvement fee are in legislation here, so it's something we are not likely to move on too much. But there are lots of other things we certainly can work with them on to improve the amount of passengers, to build passenger capacity out of Yellowknife.
What kinds of things would be easier to work on?
Marketing is a big part of it. That's something we try to work with our airline partners as much as we possibly can. Route selection. There are lots of different things we work on with different carriers. We don't necessarily work with them all at the same time. As an example, one of the carriers now is considering a route direct to Toronto, so we work with them to try to show opportunities where that could work out of Yellowknife.
I can assure you a few thousand people's ears just pricked up, the moment you said that. What else can you tell us about that?
What I can tell you right now is we are working with an air carrier, we are looking at the passenger volumes. It's confidential, obviously, and there is an awful lot of work done before a new route is selected. But we work closely with airlines on all kinds of different opportunities.
OK. Something else Joe Sparling said was he finds it much easier to deal with the airport in Whitehorse. I wondered how often you compare how your airport works to how other airports work, and how often you take steps to learn from other airports' best practices?
We work very closely with a number of airports. Edmonton International is a good example. We've done a lot of work with them to try to learn how they've become efficient, and different opportunities like growth opportunities. We've worked with Ottawa International and with lots of different airlines, and we continue to do so. Airports are partners – a flight is taking off from one airport and landing at another, and there are definitely synergies between two airports where a carrier is operating.
We have mentioned the airport improvement fee. You've stressed how you see a central role, for you and the airport, in improving the passenger experience. Which improvements would you point to?
There are a number of different things we have been working on. One of the improvements the passengers notice, of course, is Air Canada now has two direct flights to Vancouver, where you can get connectivity all over the world. On smaller things... we have developed an airport business centre where passengers can use a wi-fi equipped workspace when travelling. We find the mining industry uses that quite a bit. The Cabin gift shop is in place. It's an outstanding retail outlet and they are all keyed up for the winter season and the Asian traffic. The other improvement would be improvement to the CATSA security screening area. Now, of course, that's a partnership between our department and CATSA, but you'll notice there have been some pretty significant improvements there: there are more seats, more square footage, and on average, wait times have been reduced by 30 percent.
I feel like some people will listen to that and wonder how on earth that can be true. One of the most consistent complaints that Cabin Radio has received, and that we've seen posted online, since the CATSA security arrangement was changed, is that in actual fact wait times often seem to be extraordinarily long. How have you looked at that? Do you agree that sometimes it can actually now be significantly longer?
You can have good days and you can have bad days. Unfortunately, one bad day tends to colour the 50 good days you have. We track this very closely because it's very important to us that passengers get in and out of Yellowknife as quickly as they possibly can, and our numbers from timing passengers going through there certainly show a reduction. Again, you're going to have certain days where things have gone wrong and maybe the flights are all stacked up next to each other and there are more people going through than we would hope. But, in general, I can assure you things have improved. I think you'll find other people will agree with us on that.
Just lastly, I want to come back to this because I know how much enthusiasm there is going to have been when you said these words a little earlier. When you talk about the potential of a direct Toronto flight, what's the timeline on something like that?
Again, it's up to the carrier. The carrier makes the final decision on that. It's just one of the things they are looking at right now, so I can't really give you a timeline but I can tell you it is being considered.