For some, long-awaited federal relief to save Northern regional airlines has landed with a thud.

The Government of Canada earmarked up to $8.7 million in NWT aviation relief on April 14, responding to worried calls to support strained Northern supply chains.

Some industry members, however, are eagerly awaiting details of how the money will flow. James Heidema, chief operating officer for Northwestern Air out of Fort Smith, is one of them.

On Wednesday, he said he was keenly interested in any form of relief, but he hadn’t been approached or advised about how support would work.

A Northwestern Air plane on the runway.
photo courtesy of Northwestern Air Lease Ltd.

That money will help, nonetheless, he acknowledged. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, his airline was forced to lay off staff to cut costs.

For Heidema, there’s a pressing need to reverse that. As fire season approaches, he needs to call back laid-off employees to prepare and support the four water bombers returning to Fort Smith next month.

That’s on top of forming a critical link in the supply chain for fly-in communities relying on air transport.

“Unfortunately, we are losing money each and every month because our fixed expenses far surpass our revenues,” he wrote in an email.  “So, yes, we absolutely need financial support.”

Chris Reynolds, president of Air Tindi in Yellowknife, appreciates the federal announcement, but said more needs to be done.

“(It) will not be enough, but I can understand an initial announcement would be difficult to cover every situation and airline,” he said.

An Air Tindi plane readies for takeoff  en route to remote NWT communities. NNSL file photo

Wage subsidy assists airlines

Of its 185 staff, Air Tindi was able to call back about 90 per cent, with a federal subsidy covering up to 75 per cent of wages for hard-hit employers.

In an April 15 news release, Summit Air said it would also be able to bring back recently laid off employees. Prior to that, the airline, which employs about 170 people across Edmonton, Calgary and Yellowknife, laid off about 45 staff as the pandemic forced it to cut costs.

“Our focus right now is on taking care of our people, business continuity and on positioning Summit Air to emerge from this crisis stronger, for the long-term benefit of us all,” stated Lane Zirnhelt, chief operating officer, Summit Aviation Group.

“Much of our work has stopped as a result of the pandemic; our flying hours are down significantly compared to pre-Covid-19 levels and this is expected to continue for the next 12 weeks.”

‘Too early to tell’

NWT Chamber of Commerce executive director Renée Comeau said the federal relief for airlines wouldn’t make much difference. It could only help one airline, at best, she said.

“All of our locally-owned and operated airlines need a focus on recovery/economic stimulus of at least $15 million for the NWT,” she said last week.

Earlier this month, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed urged that flights to fly-in communities be deemed essential services.

Premier Caroline Cochrane also told NNSL Media that she had asked for federal relief for small regional airlines. While regular MLAs have lobbied the government to ask Ottawa for support, the GNWT has taken measures like waiving landing fees to ease the burden on the industry.

In the meantime, Reynolds said the NWT government has been an active ear while it was determining the extent of support needed, and pressing Ottawa for help.

More aid will be need before the end, Reynolds predicted.

“It is too early to tell. We are in a crisis and relief is required,” he said. “Depending on the amount and form of relief, we will be able to develop a plan to continue the essential critical service that Air Tindi provides in the form of health, emergency response and food security to the Northwest Territories.”

Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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