Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services
Yellowknife (Jun 22/01) - The sight of float planes taking off and landing from the shores of Old Town have been a regular sight since the town's inception, but their presence is much more than an aesthetic consideration.
The several businesses operating float plane services along the Yellowknife Bay and Back Bay waterfronts are a major part of the Old Town economy.
While they are an ongoing legacy of the North's illustrious bush pilot past, they are also a vital part of Yellowknife's future.
According to Gerry Honigman, co-owner of Arctic Excursions, like all float plane operators in the Old Town area, his business goes where the money takes him.
"I think we started in the direction we wanted to with mining and exploration in the area," says Honigman. "But lately we have found that we are catering more to tourism."
Tourism is one area float plane operators have been paying closer attention to these days.
Unlike the booming 1940s and '50s, when opportunities for exploration and mining development seemed limitless, bush pilots are finding such opportunities much more sporadic than in the past.
The latest rush in diamond exploration has largely quieted down since its peak during the mid-'90s. Many now feel the future is paved with tourism dollars.
"Tourism is a renewable resource and so it can stay strong year after year," says Honigman's partner, Mike Woods. "Tourism is all on the shoulders of the operators. The operators are the ones that have put a real effort into product development and marketing."
This bit of logic has not been lost on Arctic Sunwest general manager, Bruce Jonasson. His company recently renovated their McDonald Drive terminal with the comfort of his cliental in mind -- many of them pleasure seekers to the North.
"The waiting room is really geared towards the comfort of tourists," says Jonasson. "We did it all in big cedar panelling, and there's a couple of big windows overlooking the water so passengers can watch the day go by."
Air Thelon operator Tom Faess deals exclusively with the tourism market. He is hoping his Barren Lands eco-tourism venture will become successful enough to continue through the winter months, when Yellowknife floods mainly with Japanese tourism dollars.
"Photographers are our main clients," says Faess. "We're going to try and expand it into a winter activity."
The largest float plane operator in Old Town is Air Tindi. After 17 years in business the company has amassed a fleet of 12 float planes, not including the planes it keeps on wheels.
Co-owner Peter Arychuk described his business as often being a series of ups and downs, depending on such things as the price of fuel and the demand for float plane charters.
"The challenges are definitely keeping the costs in line with airport fees and landing fees," said Arychuk. "We're always collecting for the government. Big fuel increases have driven the cost up dramatically for the customers."
The company does have its regular cliental. It operates regular scheduled flights to several communities in the NWT, including some destinations in Nunavut. They also hold the contract for medevac flights for Stanton Regional Hospital.