Yellowknife’s vital air links with the outside world have become thinner in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, as airlines significantly reduce their schedules while they have also enhanced their safety protocols.
Canadian North’s flights to communities in the territory and heading south have all decreased in frequency.
“Our trunk routes, for example between Edmonton and Yellowknife used to be daily. There were a couple days when Yellowknife to Inuvik was twice daily. Some of the communities were daily as well, including to Cambridge Bay,” said company spokesperson Dan Valin.
Some routes now only operate once a week, including from Yellowknife to Ulukhaktok, Kugaaruk and Gjoa Haven, while others go twice a week to Norman Wells and Inuvik, according to the airline’s online schedule. Flights to Edmonton depart four times a week.
The trans-territorial Yellowknife-Rankin-Iqaluit route was five times a week but was suspended and replaced temporarily by an Iqaluit-Rankin-Cambridge Bay route.
The drop in flights is a result of fewer passengers buying tickets and government restrictions, Valin said. He said he couldn’t be more specific about the drop in passenger volume.
WestJet’s routes between Yellowknife and Edmonton and Calgary have also been significantly reduced amid the pandemic, down to only two flights per week.
The airline’s pre-Covid frequency was once a day between Yellowknife and Edmonton and twice a day between here and Calgary, said spokesperson Morgan Bell, who acknowledged that demand for flights remains low nationwide.
As a result of “significantly reduced guest demand during the Covid-19 crisis” about 4,000 flights will be removed from WestJet’s schedules across the country, including the Yellowknife-Edmonton route that will be suspended entirely from May to June 4, the company said in a blog post on Sunday.
WestJet announced on Wednesday that it would layoff 3,000 employees in early May, and CEO Ed Sims said in a blog post that “with less than 5 per cent of our pre-Covid-19 guest loads, work is simply not currently available.”
Bell confirmed that the layoffs wouldn’t affect the twice weekly Yellowknife to Calgary schedules.
Air North, which operates out of Whitehorse has suspended all flights to Yellowknife, said company president Joe Sparlin.
“Flights were cancelled following the cancellation of the Arctic Winter Games. Because we generally operate seasonally there were only a handful of flights that were impacted,” he said in an email.
Air Canada flies three times a week between Yellowknife and Edmonton, according to a search of its online flight itineraries.
Flights to Calgary are more irregular for the remainder of April but depart almost daily in May.
The airline did not respond to a request for comment.
Westjet has taken several measures to enhance health and safety during the pandemic.
Seat blocking is in effect to facilitate social distancing during flights. On Boeing 737s and 787 aircraft the middle seats are unavailable to book, as are every other seat inside its Bombardier Q400.
Other passenger procedures have also been modified. Guests are required to keep two metres of distance between each other when lining up, using disinfectant wipes provided during boarding to wipe down seats and table trays and avoiding lining up to use the washrooms.
In line with a federal directive on Monday, WestJet and Canadian North require all guests to wear non-medical face masks or facial coverings during flights.
“In support of the directive, it will be mandatory for WestJet’s guests to wear protective face coverings throughout their travel journey, including at the airport and while in flight. Travelers will be required to have a protective face covering prior to (airport) screening,” Bell said.
“Guests will be asked to temporarily remove the mask while their identification is verified.”
Canadian North said that each customer must provide their own face covering, which will be verified by company customer service personnel during check-in, according to the airline’s website.
The company will not provide customers with masks and those without masks will not be allowed to travel. Customers denied boarding because they don’t have masks will be rebooked onto a future flight with change fees waived, the company said.
The GNWT’s Department of Infrastructure did not immediately respond to inquiries about data on passenger volume at the Yellowknife airport, and pre-boarding policies.