Air North

Air North wins Travellers’ Choice awards


Airline is first partly Indigenous-owned award recipient

Air North 737-500 departure
An Air North Boeing 737-500 departs Vancouver International Airport February 20, 2020 (photo: Brett Ballah).

A small regional carrier from the North has won big in annual awards handed out by Tripadvisor, an online booking and review service. Air North was recognized as the best airline in Canada in 2020 and the best specialty carrier in North America.

“I think that having a Northern carrier earn not one but two Tripadvisor awards in the face of a pandemic I think is pretty significant,” said Air North President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Sparling in an interview. “A lot of Canadians are likely unaware of northern air carriers, the essential services they provide, the support they provide to their communities and the local economy. With every business in the country struggling to survive and looking for help, it maybe shines a bit of a light on northern air carriers, which we could use.”

It’s the first time the airline has won top spot among Canadian airlines, and the second straight year as best specialty carrier. The Tripadvisor awards are based on customer reviews collected in 2019, before the pandemic’s effects were felt in North America. Back then, service included a small meal or snack, though in-flight service has been pared down with the pandemic.

“You’re not seeing much of that, for sure,” said Sparling. “I think there are some aspects of our service that we’re able to preserve. But they really are more about doing our best to look after people than they are about feeding them or anything like that. Because we live in a small community, we’re pretty sensitive to the nervousness that people might have about air travel right now.”

Reassuring nervous flyers

To reassure its passengers, Air North has implemented enhanced cleaning and required masks, similar to other airlines. But unlike other airlines, the Whitehorse-based carrier is keeping the middle seat empty, at least for now.

“We’re not as concerned about selling the middle seat as we are about selling all the seats around the middle seat,” said Sparling. “If we can sell every seat except the middle seat on all of our flights and maintain a reduced but minimum schedule, we’re actually fine with that.”

That would mean selling 82 out of 122 daily seats between Vancouver and Whitehorse. While there may be enough passengers on the route to fill those seats, Air Canada offers competing twice-daily CRJ900 service.

“It’s an unusual dynamic in the north,” said Sparling. “You’ve got two carriers flying. Neither carrier can possibly make any money with half-full flights and we’re providing a beef-up schedule due to essential services, not only on our regional routes, but on our gateway routes as well.”

Sparling said he has tried to approach Air Canada about working together, with no success. “Ideally, there would be less capacity on the market,” he said. “This would be a great time for airlines to partner with one another to rationalize routes and minimize empty seats flying around.”


Cross-border restrictions

While Air North does not fly any routes out of the country, Sparling said border restrictions within Canada continue to hurt traffic.

Yukon recently lifted quarantine orders for people arriving from British Columbia or the Northern Territories, creating a regional travel bubble. But it’s not reciprocal – people entering the Northwest Territories from Yukon still have to quarantine.

“It isn’t really an open border yet,” said Sparling. “There’s almost nobody travelling between Inuvik and the Yukon because when they go home they’ve got to isolate for two weeks, so they’re staying home.”

What’s even more challenging, he said, is we’re in the height of the summer travel season. What happens in the fall when travel traditionally drops off?

“I think that travel will at best travel will plateau a bit after August,” said Sparling. “I think we’re seeing some progress. There’s still way too many empty seats flying around in our market.”

“Although it’s been a challenging year for travel and hospitality, we want to celebrate our partners’ achievements,” said Kanika Soni, Chief Commercial Officer at Tripadvisor. “Award winners are beloved for their exceptional service and quality. Not only are these winners well deserving, they are also a great source of inspiration for travellers as the world begins to venture out again.” 

Categories: Air North