Air North’s Whitehorse/Yellowknife/Ottawa route is now grounded for the season. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

Air North grounds Ottawa route for the season

Passengers will be given a 24-month travel credit

Air North’s Whitehorse/Yellowknife/Ottawa route is now grounded for the season.

In a July 8 announcement, the airline said it has cancelled all the remaining seasonal flights between the three cities due to reduced demand and other impacts from COVID-19.

The twice-weekly seasonal service had been scheduled to start in May, but was delayed due to the pandemic. Officials had eyed a shortened season that would start in August, but given that many border restrictions remain in place and physical distancing efforts needed on flights, the call was made to cancel the service for the 2020 summer season.

While the border between the Yukon, B.C., and the two territories opened July 1, Air North president Joe Sparling said it doesn’t seem likely travel between the Yukon and Ontario will open anytime soon.

Among the physical distancing measures having an impact is capping the number of seats on the flight with middle seats only open to passengers that are part of a social bubble they would be sitting with. For the Whitehorse/Yellowknife/Ottawa route, the airline cannot generate enough revenue doing that to cover the operating costs of the flight.

“We are going to do everything we can to maintain reasonable physical distancing onboard in order to ensure passengers’ safety and help them feel more comfortable flying again,” Sparling stated in the announcement. “Right now, this means we will not be selling or assigning middle seats other than to passengers belonging to the same social bubble, such as families or workforce travellers whose workforce travel programs have unique and robust safety protocols.”

In a July 9 interview, Sparling said the revenue lost from reduced seating is a small part of the larger, overall impact to the airline’s revenue with the bigger piece being the massive decline in travel as a result of COVID-19.

Approximately half of Air North’s employees have been laid off since the pandemic hit. Sparling noted it is thanks to government wage subsidies that the airline is able to keep other staff on the payroll. He’s hopeful that before the wage subsidies end, travel will have picked up and further cut backs will not be needed.

While the airline was able to keep its Vancouver route operating throughout the pandemic, it is only since the B.C. border opened July 1 that stops in Kelowna and Victoria were added to the route.

More local flights are also offered to Dawson City, Old Crow and Inuvik, N.W.T.

After an initial 96 per cent decline in April compared to April 2019, revenue has been increasing by a bit each month, Sparling said.

“It grows every month,” he said.

Alberta routes from Whitehorse to Edmonton and Calgary are scheduled to resume Aug. 3, though Sparling stated that will depend on the border reopening.

“That’s a government call,” he said, speculating border reopenings will work their way east over time.

Sparling also echoed the ‘buy local’ message that’s been emphasized by governments, businesses and chambers of commerce experiencing the economic impact of COVID-19.

He pointed out spending locally could help mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19 on the territory’s economy and help keep the Yukon’s workforce employed.

“It’ll certainly help us,” he said, encouraging those who are choosing to travel Outside to fly with Air North.

Those who were booked on the Whitehorse/Yellowknife/Ottawa route are being offered a 24-month travel credit or are being accommodated on other flights.

“Passengers with specific travel plans where a credit will not be sufficient are asked to contact reservations@flyairnorth.com specifying the itinerary number and any unique circumstances associated with their travel plans,” officials said in the announcement.

Looking ahead to the future of the Whitehorse/Yellowknife/Ottawa route, Air North “will be closely monitoring the situation when evaluating their tentatively scheduled Christmas 2020 and Spring Break 2021 service to these destinations.”

As Sparling pointed out though whether there’s service over school breaks will depend on borders opening.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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