Air Canada will suspend service to and from Yellowknife on January 23, the Mayor of Yellowknife said on Tuesday morning.
Rebecca Alty told Cabin Radio she had been copied on a letter from a senior manager at the airline stating Air Canada will end “all passenger operations” involving Yellowknife until further notice.
The news was first reported by NNSL.
By email, Air Canada told Cabin Radio: “We continually evaluate our network schedule, particularly the effect of stifled demand from ongoing travel restrictions and blanket quarantine rules.
“Operating in this environment is not sustainable and we have made difficult decisions to suspend all passenger operations to Yellowknife Airport until further notice, effective January 23, 2021.
“Our overall network capacity is currently down about 80 percent from the last normal year which was 2019. Air Canada will continue to evaluate and adjust its route network as required in response to the trajectory of the pandemic and travel restrictions.”
“It’s tough news,” said Alty. “It’s not entirely unexpected due to the reduction in travel, but I can see that it will be a challenge – when our borders do open up – to have our tourism rebound if one of our airlines has left the market.”
WestJet and Canadian North also operate flights between southern Canada and Yellowknife.
Alty said she had received no word from either of those two airlines related to changes of their own.
“Nothing yet and hopefully not,” she said, “but having one airline report leaving always leaves that question of whether any others will be.”
Chamber president understands decision
Jenni Bruce, president of the NWT Chamber of Commerce, has lived in Yellowknife for 22 years and can remember when Air Canada first offered flights to the city.
“The cheapest for an Edmonton flight to Yellowknife before Air Canada came was $1,200. The rates were high because it was only First Air and Canadian North at the time, then this drove the market down,” said Bruce.
“My biggest concern is that any time you eliminate competition in the market, rates go up and others might not be as motivated to keep flights going.
“I can understand why they’re making the decision when Kandola’s announcing that we’re basically closed for travel,” Bruce continued, referring to the NWT’s chief public health officer, Dr Kami Kandola.
“I do worry. If we don’t get some positive announcements out of the government, of definite timelines and that we’re opening up for business again, then it’s hard for companies to weather that.”
Deneen Everett, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, said her concern rested on the city’s ability to attract visitors once travel resumes post-pandemic.
Everett said she retained “a sense of hope” because data suggests two-thirds of tourists heading to the NWT prior to the pandemic were Canadian.
“I expect that travel within Canada will increase before international border restrictions are eased, and I think there’s an opportunity for Yellowknife to continue to position itself as a spectacular Canadian destination,” Everett said by email.
“We need to create demand to ensure that airlines return and service our community once leisure and business travel picks back up.
“Today’s announcement highlights the need for the GNWT to release the Emerging Strongly plan for post-pandemic economic recovery. The Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce will continue to be a strong partner in this process.”
Emerging Wisely is the name of the territory’s existing pandemic recovery plan. A post-pandemic plan has yet to be announced.
GNWT ‘obviously disappointed’
In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, the territorial government said it was “obviously disappointed by the news shared by Air Canada today, but understands that businesses must make decisions that they believe best fit with their business model and market conditions.”
The territory’s statement continued: “According to Air Canada, the negative impacts of Covid-19 on their operations have been unprecedented and contributed to this difficult business decision. The GNWT looks forward to a time when those conditions change.
“NWT residents should take some comfort knowing that essential services provided by our NWT airports will not be impacted by this change. This includes our ability to provide necessary medical travel services that NWT residents depend on to access care and services outside the territory.”
While the Northwest Territories has a range of travel restrictions in place designed to severely limit the number of people entering the territory, there are still hundreds of people flying into and out of Yellowknife weekly.
In the week from December 27 to January 2, the NWT government reported 531 passengers using Yellowknife Airport.
Travel is still required for students, for example, alongside essential workers like healthcare staff or those needing medical travel south. (Vacationing NWT residents are also likely to be among that number. While frowned upon by public health officials, there is no rule prohibiting leisure travel south.)
People are also still able to move to the NWT to take up jobs.
In almost all cases, a two-week isolation period applies to anyone entering the territory.