On Sunday, new air passenger protection regulations come into effect. For at least one NWT airline, this means “a significant departure” from regular procedures.
Fort Smith-based Northwestern Air Lease has never had a strict cut-off for its check-in times before. The airline also tries to hold its services when connecting flights are delayed, so passengers can make their final flight home.
But on December 15 those things are changing, the airline says.
Interpreting the new rules, Northwestern has decided it can no longer risk a more relaxed approach to its schedule in case the airline incurs stiff, new federal penalties. (Choosing to delay its own flight would qualify for a penalty. Delays due to weather or equipment failure are considered outside the airline’s control.)
Airlines will now have an obligation to communicate regularly with passengers during delays and provide food and refreshments after a certain amount of time has passed. If the delay is the airline’s fault, it must also compensate passengers – and could face up to a $25,000 fine from the Canadian Transportation Agency.
“We’re quite relaxed in the North … often we have passengers arriving five minutes before the flight, and there’s no way we can process that passenger and still meet the departure time,” explained Jim Heidema, the company’s chief operating officer.
Heidema believes the spirit of the new regulations is that “wherever possible, and when it is within the control of an airline, the flight should depart on time and arrive on time.”
From this weekend, said Heidema, a cut-off time will be instituted to make sure flights leave on time.
In Edmonton, the Northwestern counter will now close 30 minutes before departure. In other communities, counters will close 20 minutes before the flight leaves.
These cut-off times are still more lenient than other small airlines in the NWT. North-Wright Airways requires passengers to check in at least one hour before their flight leaves, and Aklak Air requires people to check in 30 minutes prior.
Heidema said Northwestern occasionally gets calls from parents whose children are trying to get home, but a delay to their first flight means they will miss the final leg with Northwestern.
“We’d try to delay our flight, because it might be the last flight that day or even that week into some communities,” he said. “And if they don’t catch our flight, they don’t get home right away.
“Most of our passengers were fine with it, but now we’re not allowed to wait,” he said, noting the airline is reluctantly accepting the change.
With this perk of northern travel about to disappear, Heidema suggested people give themselves extra time in between flights.
“It’s better you sit in an airport for a couple of hours than have a very short time between when you arrive and when you depart,” Heidema suggested.
“We owe it to everybody who’s there and on time and ready to depart.”