Airline deal hits a snag

Air North plans to strike a luggage transfer agreement with WestJet by July, says president Joe Sparling. The agreement would allow the northern airline to compete more evenly with Air Canada.

Air North plans to strike a luggage transfer agreement with WestJet by July, says president Joe Sparling.

The agreement would allow the northern airline to compete more evenly with Air Canada, which tends to be the airline of choice for Yukoners flying further east than Edmonton.

Right now, Air North customers with connecting flights on other airlines must re-check their baggage and clear security once more. An agreement between WestJet and Air North would remove this hassle.

A similar arrangement already exists between WestJet and Canadian North in the Northwest Territories. But Air North needs to overcome technological challenges first, said Sparling.

“We’re testing communications between the two reservation systems and obviously those things have to be satisfactory before an interline arrangement can take place,” he said. “But at the same time, we are talking about getting into a formal agreement with (WestJet) subject to the technology being made compatible.”

Hopes were raised about this deal on May 31, when Bob Cummings, WestJet’s executive vice president, announced to a business crowd that he and Sparling had met to discuss the agreement.

The crowd of more than 200 people erupted into spontaneous applause at the news, said Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce president Rick Karp, who was at Thursday’s event.

A WestJet representative confirmed that the fate of any transfer agreement rests on getting the two airline’s computers to communicate with one another. “Unfortunately, at this time, their reservation system won’t allow for an agreement of this kind,” said Jennifer Sanford, a media relations advisor with the airline.

Eventually, the plan is to allow customers to book tickets with both airlines at once, said Sparling. That could help prevent lost luggage and delays with connecting flights.

But making that work “requires a slightly more complex level of communication,” said Sparling. “There are a number of different ways in which you can work with another carrier. We’re aiming for full interline capabilities, but I think we’ve agreed that we’ll start with trying to get the baggage interline going first.”

The two airlines initially planned to have a deal struck by now. But, despite delays, Whitehorse’s business community is confident a deal will happen.

“It’s going to come through,” said Karp on Monday. “Bob Cummings was very, very positive about it. It’s to the benefit of WestJet as well as Air North to have an interline agreement.”

Because of WestJet’s many destinations worldwide, an agreement like this could really open up the doors to the territory, Karp added.

“The partnerships that can result with Air North and with WestJet bringing up increased traffic for tourism is unlimited,” he said. “And at the end of the (announcement), people were much more comfortable with WestJet coming into town – still very much in support of Air North, but that’s obvious, we all are.”

This would be Air North’s first interline agreement, said Sparling.

“For us, we’ve always been hampered by the limitation of our route network,” he said. “We recognize that travelers go beyond our gateway cities, and I think that having the ability to check your bags all the way through and give people that are traveling with us access to other destinations would be tremendous.

“There’s probably a significant number that aren’t traveling with us now that would travel with us if we could get their bags all the way through.”

And an agreement wouldn’t stunt any future growth for Air North because the Whitehorse-based company doesn’t really want to fly much further.

“We’re not really going anywhere other than here,” said Sparling. “We have decided to set up in the North and we’re going to do our business in the North. Other destinations may be a possibility if the Yukon market grew. But it would probably be a long while before the Yukon market supported another gateway.”

WestJet’s flights to Whitehorse are expected to remain seasonal. The company began flying to Whitehorse last month and will continue services until the end of October.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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