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Air North adds new plane to fleet

Joe Sparling has a new bird. It's 30 metres long, with a wingspan nearly as wide. It weighs 50,000 kilograms, fully loaded. At its top speed, it can travel one kilometre in four seconds.

Joe Sparling has a new bird.

It’s 30 metres long, with a wingspan nearly as wide. It weighs 50,000 kilograms, fully loaded. At its top speed, it can travel one kilometre in four seconds.

It’s a Boeing 737-500, and it’s the newest member of Air North’s growing fleet. The plane touched down at Whitehorse’s airport for the first time on January 25. Previously, it was owned by a domestic airline in Greece.

The acquisition is part of Air North’s push to line up replacements for its older planes, said Sparling, the company’s president. It follows the purchase of a 737-400 last summer.

The newest plane can carry 120 passengers - the same load as Air North’s 737-200s. The 737-500 was built by Boeing in the early 1990s as a new and improved version of the 737-200, which it started producing one decade earlier.

It boasts more efficient engines and more automated instruments. But the most eye-catching feature of the new plane is a pair of peculiar fins that jut upwards off either wingtip.

They’re called winglets, and they give the plane better lift. Air North paid approximately $500,000 to have them bolted on to the new plane.

Sparling expects they ought to pay for themselves in saved fuel within the first year of operation. He’d have winglets mounted to his new 737-400, too, except he can’t find a manufacturer that makes them to fit that model.

Each new plane is in “the $5-10 million range,” said Sparling. The airline is also building a new hangar this year, for an additional $3-5 million.

These are considerable costs for a small, regional airline. But Air North managed to finance the work without selling additional company stock, thanks to favourable financing agreements and a banner year for the airline.

In 2010, Air North flew approximately 250,000 passengers. “It’s a record,” said Sparling. By his reckoning, the airline now enjoys slightly more than half of the market.

What’s more, Sparling expects that Air Canada continues to fly the same volume of passengers it did before Air North arrived in 2001. That means the customer base has expanded a lot. As Sparling puts it: “All our business is new business.”

Sparling credits a virtuous circle, started when Air North entered the market and lowered fares.

As more people could afford to fly, the increased volume drove down the cost of business, making flying even more affordable. It’s called price stimulation.

Put in concrete terms, Sparling recalls how his children used to hop on a bus to play a hockey tournament in Fort Nelson. “Now, kids don’t bus anywhere,” he said. “They fly.”

Air North doesn’t have any plans to expand into other jurisdictions, said Sparling. He knows his present success lies partly in Air North’s ability to sway customer loyalty by hiring and buying locally, and he doesn’t want to wreck that.

But the airline has branched out with a few sideline projects. In the summer, Air North flies fishing charters from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii, which Sparling sees as part of the airline’s “backyard.”

And Air North has taken to flying to special destinations every few months. Last week, Sparling flew the new aircraft, nearly full, to Las Vegas.

The new airplane is lacking television sets mounted to the back of passenger seats, as are found on Air Canada’s newer planes. But, Sparling is quick to note, Air North still provides complimentary meals on their flights, unlike their rival.

“What do you want to do - watch TV, or eat?” he asked.

For several years, Air North has tried to strike a feeder arrangement with Canada’s domestic airlines, allowing baggage from Air North flights to be automatically transferred to passengers’ connecting flights.

“To date, West Jet has shown no interest,” said Sparling. “But Air Canada said they would go down that road. I don’t know when it’ll get done, but I’m optimistic it will get done.”

Given how crossing through security checks is a growing hassle, having such an agreement would be “huge” for Air North to capture flyers, said Sparling.

Air North also hopes to fly its first jet into Dawson City this summer, now that one of their 737-200s is decked-out to land on a gravel airstrip. Metal plates wrap around the landing carriage to deflect bouncing gravel, while air blowers beneath the jet engines help prevent rocks from being sucked into the turbines.

Testing continues at Dawson’s airstrip to ensure the gravel is firm enough to prevent stray rocks from ricocheting about, or a wheel sinking into the surface. Sparling hopes to have jets landing in Dawson City by June.

This ought to take pressure off Air North’s four aging Hawker Siddeley turboprops, which fly into Dawson, Old Crow and Inuvik. These venerable planes were built in the 1970s.

They’re still admired today for their strength in landing on short, rough airstrips. But they’re gas guzzlers.

Air North’s new hangar will have an area of nearly 2,800 square metres, making it more than double the size of the existing fabric-framed facility. Construction will start this summer and, if all goes well, could be done by the end of 2011.

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