With Air Canada cancelling its Yellowknife-Calgary route in November, and travellers going to and from the NWT having difficulty flying because of cancellations over Christmas, some may wonder what incentives the GNWT is providing to airlines to serve the North.
“Given our vast territory, flights are not just a convenience; they are a necessity that supports the NWT economy and the movement of residents for essential services not available in their communities,” said Jennifer Lukas, spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure. “The GNWT has and will continue to reach out to major airlines on behalf of Northerners, ensuring the airline sector is aware of both our unique operating environment and the social impacts their business decisions have on NWT residents.”
Lukas said that legislation does not allow for the territorial government to create direct incentives for airlines to come to the Yellowknife Airport (YZF).
“As a government-owned airport, our fees, such as landing and terminal fees, are legislated in the Public Airports Act. This act defines the fees that are to be charged to operators based on aircraft size/capacity,” she said. “Currently, there is no language in the act that allows airports to reduce fees for the purpose of providing an incentive.”
Canadian North is introducing a Yellowknife-Calgary route, announced last month, with plans to fly passengers starting on Feb. 14.
Lukas also stated that two major airlines — WestJet and Air Canada — indicated that they are expecting to be flying in and out of the territory more frequently in the coming months.
Hiring staff was and still is difficult following the Covid-19 pandemic. It negatively affected the airport and other related businesses, said Lukas.
“Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the labour market, particularly the ability to staff vacancies. This has been felt across the aviation world, affecting every aspect of their business, such as baggage handlers, check-in agents, pilots, etc.,” she said. “Carriers have struggled to meet staffing demand and, as such, have been selective in route recovery as they try to staff their vacancies.”
However, business is picking up for the airport.
“YZF continues to see recovery in its passenger and aircraft movements. Year-to-date aircraft movements have reached pre-Covid levels and passenger traffic continues to rise. YZF has already exceeded last fiscal year’s passenger movements and expects to see 500,000 passenger movements this fiscal year (April 2022 to March 2023).”
According to the 2008 Yellowknife Airport Development Plan, it was forecasted that YZF would have between 773,000 and 1,137,500 annual passengers by 2027. YZF had 527,000 passengers in 2007.
To support greater airport capacity, the government has been building and improving upon its infrastructure, which Lukas said is an important part of creating revenue at the airport.
“YZF has invested heavily in infrastructure, such and airfield lighting, airfield drainage, increased capacity of the holding room, baggage system upgrades, common use terminals, terminal parking and fleet renewal.
“We also endeavour to provide a competitive business environment for airlines, as controlled and competitive costs along with passenger growth are key to maintaining and growing airport capacity.
An expansion of the airport is also being explored. The GNWT is working on a 20-year master plan, which could include plans for a new terminal building.
History and cost reduction
YZF was built in 1944 by Canadian Pacific Airlines, which ceased operations in 1987. The federal Department of Transport bought the airport in 1946, and has since completed multiple upgrades and renovations over the years, including a new terminal building constructed in 1963, and a control tower in 1972.
Lukas said YZF has been able to keep project costs down through successful applications for federal funding via programs such as the Airport Capital Assistance Program.
“Since Yellowknife Airport (YZF) started operating under a revolving fund in 2017, it has kept its costs in check and has been able to maintain fees without increase,” she said.
A revolving fund is a fund or account that an organization replenishes by repaying money used from their account, allowing them to finance their continuing operations without any fiscal year limitation. Revolving funds are commonly used to support governments and non-profit operations.
Lukas noted that YZF works with its operators through the Airline Consultative Committee to address concerns and needs, as well as desired airport improvements.
“We will continue to strengthen our relationships with the airlines while emphasizing the fundamental role that their sector plays in connecting communities, economies, people and services in the North,” she said.