Dawson City opens first newly-paved Northern runway in a quarter-century

The first Air North Boeing 737-500 lands on Dawson City’s paved runway May 28, 2019 (photo: Air North).

Dawson City opened Canada’s first newly-paved runway north of the 60th parallel in 25 years Tuesday, ushering in what proponents hope will be a new era of tourism and aviation growth in the region.

An Air North ATR 42 made the company’s first landing on the asphalt strip Tuesday morning, with Captain David Lariviere, First Officer Daniel O’Leary Baikie, and Flight Attendant Brianna Stark operating the flight from Whitehorse.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to see the first scheduled flight into Dawson was 8:30 this morning, and then our first jet landing at Dawson was around noon,” said Air North founder Joe Sparling. He is a pilot, and has been flying into Dawson’s gravel strip for 42 years.

Air North is the only scheduled airline serving the community.

“It’s something Northern aviation operators have been promoting, increased and improved Northern infrastructure, for some time,” said Sparling. “I think that strategic paving of Northern airports will help Northern operators modernize their fleets and help keep travel costs down for Northerners.”

Air North also landed its first 737-500 on the paved surface Tuesday, ferrying cruise ship passengers from Fairbanks, Alaska. The company says the improvement means it won’t have to use lighter turbo-prop aircraft on the route. About 17,000 cruise ship passengers visit Dawson each year.

“In terms of the jet operations, we are able to use our more modern jets into Dawson as opposed to our older less fuel efficient gravel-capable jets,” said Sparling. “So you’ve got about a 20% fuel savings as a result of using the more modern airplane.”

Older Boeing 737-200s could be fitted with kits to protect the engines and critical surfaces from gravel damage, but those planes are nearing the end of their lives, and new the kits are not available for newer aircraft, leaving Northern communities facing the loss of jet service.

The view from the flight deck of Dawson City’s newly-paved runway May 28, 2019 (photo: Air North).

“It feels good to see this actually come to fruition,” said Dawson mayor Wayne Potoroka, crediting years of hard work and lobbying to see the project completed.

“This is the only international airport that I can think of that was landing planes on a gravel runway up until today,” he said.

The airport caters to tourist traffic, the area’s largest economic driver, and nearby mining operations. Potoroka is hopeful the investment will lead to more opportunities for the community.

“This has the potential to move that northern hub, or at least part of it, just a little bit further north from Whitehorse,” said Potoroka. “Air North serves communities north of us, so that also brings some possibility that we could be more of a service centre for those communities.”

“We’re already doing that, it will just allow us to build on those capabilities,” said Sparling. “In the summer, for example, eventually I can see us operating scheduled flights with the jet into Dawson and turbo-prop going from Dawson to the Northern communities and back, and the jet flying the last leg into Whitehorse.”

The Yukon government, which owns the airport, funded the $10 million project, arguing the former gravel runway was no longer able to handle jet traffic.

A 2013 territorial report examining the future of the gravel runway found that, “Although newer jet aircraft typically provide better route economics, they are not conducive to northern airports, particularly those which have gravel runways, due to faster landing speeds, higher tire pressures, and designs with low-slung engines (which are difficult to protect with gravel kits).”

A gravel kit-equipped Boeing 737-200 takes off from Dawson City in 2014 (photo: Air North).

“The reality is that [jet service] will no longer be a possibility on a gravel runway,” Richard Mostyn, Minister of Highways and Public Works, told the legislature in March. “We either forgo the jet traffic or we pave it. We decided to pave it,”

The same report also found that the unpredictable nature of the local economy and air service into Dawson made it hard to plan for the future.

Dawson’s airport was closed to all fixed-wing aircraft for a little more than a week so the paving could take place.

“It will be quite a service enhancement for Northerners and it will be very important in letting us keep prices affordable,” said Sparling.

Dawson City has had an airstrip since the early 1930s, and, despite this month’s improvement, is designated only for daytime flying due to the nearby rugged terrain.

Rankin Inlet hosted the last Northern runway conversion from gravel to asphalt in 1994.

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