As of early March, residents of Hay River will once again be able to fly to and from the Alberta town of High Level.
Northwestern Air Lease Ltd. (NWAL), an aviation company based in Fort Smith, will resume trips to High Level.
James Heidema, the chief operating officer with NWAL, said the company currently flies a Jetstream aircraft twice a week from Fort Smith to Hay River to Edmonton, but hasn’t stopped anywhere between Hay River and Edmonton since early last year, largely because of Covid-19.
However, Heidema said another aviation company recently stopped flying into High Level from Edmonton, leaving the town without any scheduled service with the rest of Alberta.
“So they have nobody flying in there at all now,” he said. “They reached out to us and we looked at our routes. So starting on the fourth of March on Thursdays and Sundays, when we go through Hay River we will stop in High Level on the way down and stop on the way back up, and provide them some level of service.”
Heidema said a number of people in High Level contacted NWAL, including the mayor and the manager of the airport.
“We don’t want to do a lot more yet because, with all the restrictions with the need to self-isolate and all the rest of that, people aren’t travelling like they used to travel,” he said. “So we’re just cautiously adding one more stop.”
Heidema said that High Level had been a normal stop for NWAL for many years before the Covid-19 pandemic.
High Level was never a great stop for NWAL before it was dropped, he said.
“I mean we picked up a few people going in each direction, but Hay River is a much better route for us because there’s a lot of travel between Hay River and Edmonton.”
NWAL is hopeful it can pick up some traffic in High Level, and if it does, it will continue with the stop.
Heidema said resuming the stop in High Level will be good for Hay River residents if they need to travel there for business or other reasons.
Terry Rowe, the president of the Hay River Chamber of Commerce, welcomes the return of the stop in High Level.
“Any increased air traffic in and out of Hay River is a step in the right direction,” said Rowe.
Heidema stressed that the additional stop in High Level will not increase the Covid-19 risk to the NWT.
“Providing another service isn’t going to increase the risk at all,” he said.
Heidema said travellers entering an airport terminal in Alberta or in the NWT must mask up and keep the masks on until exiting the terminal at their destinations.
“So whoever flies from High Level, for example, into Hay River, they have to wear a mask before they go into the High Level terminal and wear a mask on the aircraft and until they exit the Hay River terminal,” he said. “When they arrive in Hay River, they’re met by public health and they have to present a self-isolation plan, which means they have to do the two weeks of self-isolation.”
NWAL is also very careful with passengers on its planes, he said.
“We stagger people if the loads allow us to stagger people so they’re not sitting so closely together. But if the flight’s full, the flight’s full. We try to exercise caution wherever we can.”
The aircraft undergoes a deep scrub every night.
Heidema said anyone needing to travel to Hay River from High Level could also drive if they couldn’t fly.
“It’s certainly more costly on a flight than it is to drive. So those people who want to come are going to come regardless of what their method is,” he said.
Overall, Heidema said the reduced number of air travellers because of Covid-19 has been difficult for NWAL.
“Without a doubt, we’re happy to extend our service and we’re hopeful that it will affect our bottom line,” he said of the stop in High Level. “We’re losing money every month currently. But we have reserves, so we’re OK for 2021 and so we can continue our service. But anything we can do to improve our bottom line allows us to live that much longer to continue operations.”
NWAL used to have 21 flights a week, but that is now down to about 11.
Before Covid-19, it would fly five days a week on the Fort Smith-Hay River-High Level-Edmonton route.