Coronavirus
Economy

Hundreds of NWT aviators are unemployed. Nobody knows what’s next.

At least 210 flight crew, engineers, managers, and administrators from NWT airlines have now been laid off as air travel rapidly declines in the coronavirus world.

Summit Air became the latest to cut jobs on Friday as it announced approximately 45 staff “will be temporarily leaving the organization.” Like others, the airline said it had barely any business.

Northwestern Air Lease, North-Wright Airways, and Air Tindi have all made significant cuts. Canadian North emailed staff on Thursday “soliciting lay-off requests” – asking people to voluntarily go – prior to making final decisions.

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Of northern airlines surveyed by Cabin Radio, only Aklak Air has yet to cut jobs. The airline said on Friday it has no plans to do so.

At Northwestern in Fort Smith, the airline’s chief operating officer laid himself off last week.

We’re never going to go back to what we used to know.

JIM HEIDEMA, FORMER CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, NORTHWESTERN

Jim Heidema said he had left the company but would come back to volunteer as soon as his 14 days of self-isolation were over following a trip to Alberta.

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Heidema said he realized he “could easily take a layoff and take my salary out of the equation, so we could keep someone else longer.” Northwestern has laid off 55 staff, going from 70 employees to just 15.

“It sounds like I’m a hero, but I’m not,” he said. “I am just in a fortunate situation and it was the right thing to do.

“For some people it’s their entire livelihood. Especially for the pilots. There was a shortage of pilots and now there’s an abundance worldwide.”

‘We will overcome this’

Northwestern is now running two flights a week to Edmonton and none to Yellowknife. The airline previously made multiple trips to Edmonton, six days a week.

Heidema said many former Northwestern staff are staying in Fort Smith. They’ve built lives there and have partners in town that still have jobs.

Some younger pilots, however, have already headed home to other parts of Canada. (There, they might not have to pay rent.) Heidema says it’s “a question mark” if they will come back when the pandemic passes.

A file photo of Northwestern Air Lease's Cessna 206 in 2018. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

A Northwestern Air Lease Cessna 206 in 2018. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

“We’re never going to go back to what we used to know,” Heidema said. “It’s going to be a new normal – what shape that normal takes, I have no idea.

“I think it’s going to be a while before people trust enclosed spaces or group situations.

“I don’t know if people will trust aircraft. I don’t think this is going to end, in the short term.”

Giving a personal example, he said he and his wife are “cruisers” but now don’t know if they could be persuaded to board a cruise ship again.

Once out of self-isolation next Friday, Heidema plans to help the remaining leadership team at Northwestern keep the doors open, while looking for support from the territorial and federal governments.

In the meantime, he is calling former colleagues to see how they are doing.

“We are resilient. We will overcome this and carry on,” he said.

Canadian North calls for voluntary layoffs

Canadian North this week asked its staff to do the same as Heidema and volunteer to be laid off before the company makes cuts.

In a letter to workers on Thursday, the company’s human resources department called the pandemic “an unprecedentedly difficult time,” citing rapid decline in demand and revenue.

Since March 17 Canadian North has run a schedule essentially cut in half, with a single passenger flight between Edmonton, Yellowknife, and Inuvik on some but not all days of the week.

“To navigate through these very challenging times, we must make some very difficult decisions,” the company told staff.

“You will have seen news of layoffs at other Canadian airlines in the media. At this time we do not anticipate near the magnitude of reductions as we have seen with other air carriers.

“However, we too will need to reduce our workforce to align with the schedule changes that are necessary through this period.”

A passenger boards a Canadian North Boeing 737 at Norman Wells in April 2018

A passenger boards a Canadian North Boeing 737 at Norman Wells in April 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Canadian North said temporary layoffs are anticipated from early April until August. Unionized employees who would like to voluntarily accept a layoff are asked to put their names forward.

“We are hopeful that the timeframe will be less and we can welcome our skilled team members back to work sooner than August 1,” said the airline.

Staff voluntarily laid off will keep benefits coverage for 120 days, if they continue to pay their share of the premium, and can access an employee assistance program. They won’t get severance pay, won’t be able to contribute to the company’s retirement plan, and won’t be paid out for their vacation.

Dan Valin, Canadian North’s manager of marketing and communications, said the company “doesn’t have a specific number in mind” of people to be let go, either voluntarily or otherwise.

Once the voluntary process closes on Sunday, Valin said, the company will evaluate its options.

Layoffs at Tindi, North-Wright, Summit

Air Tindi was the first NWT-based airline to announce layoffs, on March 20. It said around a third of its staff would be let go or redeployed.

Chris Reynolds, the airline’s president, told Cabin Radio on Friday that equates to 65 people laid off, including pilots, aircraft maintenance engineers, apprentices, administrative staff, customer service agents, ramp attendants, and cargo staff.

North-Wright Airways, based in Norman Wells, announced last week it would not operate passenger flights from Yellowknife to the Sahtu until at least April 13 – primarily in an effort to keep Covid-19 out of the region.

Although the circumstances of the pandemic are changing daily, we will continue to try to source more work and flight hours.

LANE ZIRNHELT, SUMMIT AIR

Travis Wright, the airline’s president, said on Thursday 60 percent of staff had been laid off.

“The layoffs totalled about 45 people,” he wrote. “When this is all over, we plan on hiring them back and continuing on business how we were three weeks ago. We are hopeful the business will bounce back. 

“We have just scaled back for now, so our operation is much smaller, but we will continue to operate with our core staff.

“Hopefully in the next few weeks – when the fog lifts, as it always does – people can then start travelling on our schedule network and booking charters, and we can start bringing staff back on.”

Aklak Air aircraft

Aklak Air intends to keep all current staff. Photo: Aklak Air

On Friday, Summit Air announced around 45 staff at Yellowknife, Edmonton, and Calgary bases would go.

“Today’s announcement relates to circumstances beyond our control and does not reflect the hard work and dedication the Summit Air team has consistently demonstrated, especially in recent weeks,” said chief operating officer Lane Zirnhelt in a statement.

The company termed the layoffs “temporary involuntary leave.”

“Although the circumstances of the pandemic are changing daily, we will continue to try to source more work and flight hours and will offer any additional work to laid-off crews and staff with the hope we can bring our valued staff back as early as possible,” Zirnhelt continued.

Aklak Air’s Ken Dalton, by contrast, thinks his airline can make it through the next few months without letting anyone go.

“We run with a skeleton crew already,” said Dalton, Aklak Air’s general manager. He said all staff have additional duties that remain even as flights are reduced.

Aklak, which connects Arctic coastal communities to Inuvik, announced on Wednesday it would operate just two passenger flights a week until further notice.

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