Northwestern Air Lease plans to spreads its wings and fly a little more in June after the Covid-19 pandemic disruptions decimated its flight schedule since March.

With the help of the $793,000 the airline received in federal assistance for pandemic-affected airlines, it will expand on its weekly travels between Yellowknife and Fort Smith as of June 5. That news comes as Norman Wells-based North-Wright Airways resumes its passenger flights in June, also aided by the assistance from Ottawa.

RELATED REPORTING: Five Northern airlines to receive share of $8.7 million in Covid assistance within days

RELATED REPORTING: North-Wright Airways to resume passenger flights in June

“(The funding) gave us some breathing time. We’re ramping up,” said James Heidema, chief operating officer of Fort Smith-based Northwestern Air Lease.

Northwestern Air Lease is restarting one of its weekly flights from Fort Smith to Yellowknife.
photo courtesy of Northwestern Air Lease Ltd.

The airline currently operates three flights per week between Fort Smith and Edmonton for essential service workers and returning NWT residents, and two flights between Fort Smith and Yellowknife on Monday and Wednesday.

The Edmonton schedule includes a stop in Fort Chipewyan and previously in Fort McMurray, but that stop was discontinued. Its other route to Edmonton has stops in Hay River and sometimes High Level. Come June 5, the Fort Smith-Yellowknife flight will operate on Fridays.

The airline has been trying to gauge public support for the Friday flight through Facebook posts asking for feedback on the route, and offering a discount of $199 each way.

While Northwestern Air Lease is taking tentative steps to broaden its offerings, it’s difficult to fly past the scale of impact that Covid has had on the airline.

“We were doing 41 flights a week and now we’re doing five. We were flying to Edmonton and to Yellowknife twice a day. Charters to parks like Wood Buffalo and all over the place. Most of those have gone by the wayside,” Heidema said. “We did food service flights to the some of the smaller communities, and to the Ekati and Diavik mines. A big part of our business is government travel and medical travel, (and) a lot of elective surgery happens in Yellowknife or Edmonton.”

As people hunkered down and government staff began working from home, passenger numbers on Northwestern Air Lease flights dropped from pre-Covid averages of at least eight people per flight, six days a week – with many flights selling out – to about four to six passengers on a heavily reduced schedule.
Employee numbers also fell, with the airline having to lay off most of its 72 staff until just 15 workers remained.
“Now we’re back up to 28 and two part-timers. We probably won’t go back to any higher than 40. Our expenses are higher than our revenue. We have to maintain our equipment,” Heidema said.
Even Northwestern’s affiliated flight school the Terry Harrold School of Aviation has seen student numbers decrease since many come from down south and can’t afford to self-isolate for 14 days before beginning the training program. The one-year-old school has delayed the start of its September class until January.

It’s unclear how long the road to business recovery will be for a business like Northwestern, with the GNWT saying that border closures will remain in place until a Covid vaccine is found, making it unlikely that many passengers will soon be able to make regular flights to Edmonton.

One sign of hope is that the relaxation of Covid restrictions will bring back elective surgeries at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife in June, giving a green light to medical travelers in the territory.

RELATED REPORTING: Elective surgeries expected to resume at full capacity by June

Heidema has his own reasons for hope.

“Whether you like (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau or not, the government is stepping up and trying to help a lot of people,” he said. “This company is 55 years old. We’re not planning to close our doors at all but we want to be responsible and ease ourselves back into it.”

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

Leave a comment

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.