Amid Covid-19 cutbacks, Air Tindi has acquired seven new Dash 7 aircraft – a four-engine plane ideal for taking off and landing in short-distance and hostile conditions.
The Yellowknife-based airline is the largest operator of Dash 7s in the world. They are joined by the British Antarctic Survey, Transport Canada and the U.S military who use the aircraft for specialty missions.
Air Tindi services communities throughout the NWT by transporting groceries, fuel, commuters, tourists, medevac passengers, and a host of other supplies on charter and cargo flights.
Since runways in many Air Tindi destinations are short – sometimes abandoned – and often unpaved, Air Tindi president Chris Reynolds said the Dash 7 is “the aircraft of choice for a lot of what we do.
“It is the only large aircraft that can carry the amount of cargo and passengers of its kind to the local communities of Whati, Wekweeti, Gameti, Lutsel K’e, to Nunavut communities like Kimmirut and Grise Fiord. No other aircraft of its size can land at those communities,” he said. “The performance of the aircraft is unmatched.”
While well-suited to the North, the Dash 7 is niche. Only a limited number were produced, which makes it difficult to acquire more of them and spare parts.
Air Tindi has been working to secure the aircraft for a year-and-a-half, before the airline industry – and the world – became plagued by Covid lockdowns and border closures.
They bought the Dash 7s from Trans Capitol Air Ltd. – a Toronto-based airline that focuses on international work like United Nation relief and peacekeeping.
While the timing is “unfortunate,” Reynolds said the opportunity to buy the seven planes was “once in a lifetime.
“It’s not something that we would have ever picked to do during the pandemic but it means so much for the viability of the company, the longevity of the aircraft and the support for the communities,” he said.
“Through very good cooperation with our lenders and debt financing, we were able to get the deal done.”
Reynolds said the recently-acquired Dash 7s will be used largely for parts, though he assured the investment is entirely forward thinking. Even without the recent purchase, Air Tindi would still be years away from having to worry about losing its Dash 7s, he said.
With the additional aircraft, news hires will follow in the future, said Reynolds.
When the pandemic struck in March, Air Tindi began tightening its operations.
The airline’s flight schedule was cut in half, resulting in layoffs and grounding 40 per cent of the company’s fleet.
Air Canada announced that it would be suspending service to Yellowknife from Jan. 23 until further notice. Canada’s largest airline cited “stifled demand from ongoing travel restrictions and blanket quarantine rules” as the reason behind the suspension. Network capacity is down 80 per cent from 2019, according to Air Canada.
Canadian North has also made adjustments by selling its Dash 8 aircraft. Company spokesperson Kevin Kablutsiak said that when Canadian North’s Dash 8 lease expired in October, the airline chose not to renew. The airline also put its other two Dash 8 aircraft up for sale “to ensure that we are operating more cost effectively.” Kablutsiak said the fleet consolidation had begun even before Covid-19 “damages” set in and the airline had already begun shifting focus to its ATR aircraft.
“It’s not cheap to be operating airlines, especially in the North,” he said. “We have to be mindful of how we spend our resources, how we use the resources and decisions that we make when it comes time to updating our fleet.”
While Reynolds said the border closures “still hurt” and that the airline is worried about the level of business during the coming summer, which is the airline’s peak season, he said, “We have to look beyond that and make sure that the company is viable for a long time.”
The new Dash 7s help to do that, he said.
“It’s something that we’re proud we operate,” he said. “It would be a real loss for the North to lose the aircraft altogether.”