Arctic Canada : airline merger creating ‘dire’ situation for northwest communities, says MLA

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson says since airlines Canadian North and First Air merged, medical travel patients have been having a hard time getting flights. ‘It’s pretty dire,’ he said. (Sara Minogue/CBC)
The MLA for the Northwest Territories’ northernmost communities is calling on airlines in the Beaufort Delta to provide more frequent flights out of his region.

In the last two months, Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson has flown seven round trips between Inuvik and Yellowknife. In the legislature Tuesday, he said he’s constantly running into constituents who’ve been bumped off flights, including cancer patients who have missed appointments in the South.

“Since this merger came on board with Canadian North and First Air, cancer patients and medical travel patients have been having a really tough time getting out of Inuvik,” Jacobson said. “It’s pretty dire.”

Jacobson called on Health Minister Diane Thom to call the airlines in for a meeting so they can work together to find solutions.

Thom demurred on that suggestion, but did say her department is “alive to the issue” that began when jet service out of Inuvik dropped to one flight daily. She said her department is working to “mitigate the impact on medical travellers.”

Thom defined that as “ensuring there’s sufficient time to process travel requests to reach specialist appointments on time, checking with the airline to see if travel is available for the required day and booking a day earlier, if needed.”

There will be hiccups along the way and we ask for your understanding.Diane Thom, minister of Health and Social Services

Thom also said people are not being bumped from flights because of medical travel patients taking their place.

“There’s unrealistic expectations that people travelling on medical travel can somehow bump other paying passengers on oversubscribed flights.”

Jacobson pressed the minister to ask the airlines to help solve the problem.

Instead of accepting that suggestion, Thom spoke directly to residents who need to travel for health care.

“Please bear with us as we work to improve medical travel. There will be hiccups along the way and we ask for your understanding.”

The airline says it’s investigating reports of bumped passengers and will work with the N.W.T. government to ‘ensure we offer a service that meets the needs of the communities we serve.’ (Canadian North /Facebook)

The federal government approved the two airlines’ merger in June, subject to conditions. Those included no price increases for passengers or cargo delivery beyond those related to operating costs, and “no reductions to the weekly schedule options on all routes of the airlines’ combined network.”

In an emailed statement Wednesday, Canadian North spokesperson Dan Valin said the company is investigating reports of bumped passengers and will work with the N.W.T. government to “ensure we offer a service that meets the needs of the communities we serve.”

“We understand that we provide an essential service and that the timely movement of medical travel passengers is a priority.”

The airline also responded to reports of complaints of long delays and passengers being bumped from flights in an email to CBC late last month.

Valin said at the time that weather and mechanical issues have caused some delays in the Beaufort Delta, and safety is paramount.

“When possible [we] will look for other available aircraft to support our operations to offer service to our customers, which has occurred on this route this month,” Valin had said.

He said if a flight is cancelled or delayed, passengers are automatically put on the next available flight and compensated.

“We continuously monitor our capacity loads to ensure we meet the demand of the market for passengers and for cargo. We will continue to monitor and will look at increasing capacity and or flight frequency if the market demand is there to support it,” Valin said.

Tuesday marked the first regular sitting of the first session of the 19th Legislative Assembly. The three-day session wraps up on Thursday.

Sara Minogue, CBC News

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