Combined airline promises improvements, but no guarantees

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News of a proposed merger between First Air and Canadian North, the two dominant airlines serving Nunavut, has startled many Nunavummiut since word came on July 6.

First Air and Canadian North have agreed to terms on combining their fleets. There are no guarantees on post-merger ticket prices, scheduling or employee retention, according to representatives of the airlines.
Mark Taylor/First Air photo

“Nunavut is so dependent on the airlines for basic transportation of goods and people,” said Iqaluit’s Victor Tootoo, “so a merger of two is a concern that I have in terms of scheduling, frequency of flights, number of aircraft servicing routes, airfares, even rewards programs.”

It’s not possible to predict or guarantee post-merger fares and scheduling, replied Canadian North manager of communications Kelly Lewis, adding that he and his counterpart, First Air’s Dan Valin, collaborated on responses to questions posed by Nunavut News. The existing competition between First Air and Canadian North on their overlapping routes has led to flights with too many unsold seats and too much empty space in cargo-holds, resulting in higher ticket prices and cargo rates, said Lewis.

“We believe the presence of competition in absence of sufficient demand comes at a high price, and that Northern communities would be better served by one strong, reliable air carrier operating a sustainable schedule,” he wrote. “This merger will improve the sustainability and efficiency of Arctic air services.”

Tootoo – voicing his own thoughts because he hadn’t yet had a chance to consult with the members of the Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce as that organization’s president – is familiar with many people in the territory who work for the airlines.

“I don’t know how many of them will have jobs after this is all is said and done. I am concerned for those friends and acquaintances as human beings, as individuals, for their employment,” he said.

No labour guarantees will be made, according to Lewis. Currently, each airline has close to 800 employees, with about half of First Air’s workers based in the North while about one-third of Canadian North’s workforce resides North of 60.

“Our goal will be to leverage the respective strengths and experience of both teams, keeping as many people as possible,” Lewis wrote. “We’ve committed to our employees to communicate openly and honestly throughout the merger process to ensure that our team members are kept informed and can continue to focus on providing the best possible service to our customers.”

The new Canadian North will continue its Aurora Rewards program and its affiliation with Aeroplan after the merger, Lewis stated.

Yet the lost element of competition between the airlines could lead to complacency, Tootoo suggested.

“You could expect to see something new, different and better every once in a while from the two different companies and I hope that that’s not lost with a new organization,” he said.

He added that he’s also concerned about a possible reduction in sponsorships from a single airline as opposed to two.

“Things like Nunavut Day, for example, or the Alianait Arts Festival. Pick a thousand different things that happen in all the communities in Nunavut – all of those happenings, events, benefitted from having competition at the airlines, in one way or another,” he said.

Conversely, Tootoo said better utilization of aircraft in a combined fleet and improved availability of pilots and staff should be an upside – something that both airlines have cited as a future advantage.

“I think each airline had downtime for aircraft because of crewing issues, and an aircraft on the ground doesn’t make you any money, it costs you money,” Tootoo said.