Air North lands national award

Air North does most of its business thousands of feet in the sky, but the airline’s presence is definitely felt on Yukon soil.

Air North does most of its business thousands of feet in the sky, but the airline’s presence is definitely felt on Yukon soil.

Sure the territory reaps economic spinoffs from having its own airline, but Air North — now in its 30th year — dabbles in arts and sports too.

“It’s pretty difficult to say no to the many requests we get for sponsorship, and that’s part of being a community based airline,” said Air North president and CEO Joe Sparling.

“Travel is often a big component of sponsorship, so it’s easy for us to help out.”

With increases in passengers flying every year and ticket prices that have remained steady despite rising fuel costs blamed for rising fares across Canada, Air North is often touted as a Yukon success story. 

In recognition of his work opening up the skies above the territory, Sparling received the 2007 Transportation Association of Canada Achievement Award, which was presented at a ceremony in Saskatoon earlier this month.

“Industry recognition is always gratifying,” said Sparling. “It speaks to the uniqueness of what Air North has accomplished in the Yukon.”

The association gave Sparling the award because of his “hands-on management style, strategic thinking and perseverance, which grew Air North from its humble beginnings with one aircraft serving the mining industry to a successful northern company.”

While the market has grown since the company offered its jet service, ticket prices have dropped at least 20 per cent, said Sparling.

“More people are flying and they’re flying more often,” he added. “It’s very unusual that fares haven’t gone up along with the fuel prices.”

Since 2001, passengers landing and taking off from the Whitehorse airport have increased about 29 per cent, from 153,892 to 198,137 in 2006, said Sparling.

“We’re certainly going to break the 200,000 mark this year,” he said.

In 2006, 107,000 passengers took Air North planes.

To run an airline in a competitive market that has seen companies like Canada 3000, CanJet and JetsGo fail in the past decade is daunting.

Sparing credits his company’s success to the focus on the local market.

“We take pride in that we don’t just provide service to the South, but we’re flying to the North as well,” said Sparling.

Air North has four Hawker Siddeley 780s and two Boeing 737-200s that regularly commute to Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Dawson City, Inuvik, Old Crow and Fairbanks, Alaska.

Sparling has noticed more kids sports and cultural groups using the airline instead of hitting the road, opening up Alberta and BC as “close” destinations.

“Instead of taking a bus for 14 hours to Fairbanks, they can hop on a plane for a short ride for a cheap trip,” he said.

Yukon sports and culture have benefited from Air North’s sponsorship — through travel discounts or help with fundraising — others in the community have been helped too.

The company is part of a program that brings in mentally disabled adults with the idea of moving them from a full-time, heavily supervised position to one of independence.

Local businesses have also praised Air North, which won the business of the year award from the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce in 2006, for its effect on the local economy.

The company did $37.5 million in revenue in 2006, up 25 per cent from the previous year, according to a recent shareholder meeting.

Sparling owns about 51 per cent of the company and 49 per cent is owned by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Development Corporation, which is owned in turn by almost 900 First Nation members.

Almost one per cent of the company is owned by about 600 Yukoners.

Air North profits stay in the territory, said Sparling.

The 184 full-time equivalent positions also “provide enormous regional benefits,” he added.

There are choices the company makes that bring business to the Yukon that otherwise would drift across provincial borders, he said.

Twice a year for five or six weeks, Air North brings in a crew of about 20 people to do maintenance work on the company’s aircrafts rather than flying the planes to shops Outside.

“These guys are staying in the hotels and eating in the restaurants or renting cars,” said Sparling. “We do this in slow seasons too, in March and April and then September and October.”

Air North is looking at modernizing its fleet, adding new turboprop or jet engine crafts to its fleet.

Turboprop planes have been praised for their more fuel-efficient and cost-effective design, and Time magazine recently published a story noting a trend for small airlines moving away from jet engines.

Several Yukon runways would have to be paved before an expansion and the territorial government is currently looking at options to modernize the airstrips.

The market is slowly growing, but not fast enough for an immediate expansion, said Sparling

“Either more people have to start flying or the other guys have to fly less,” he said.

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