Air North – Yukon’s Airline is starting a new service to Yellowknife and Ottawa in the first quarter of 2014. In an interview, the Yukon Times editor Gurdeep Pandher spoke with Allan Moore who is the Airline’s director of commercial development, regarding this new route and the Airline’s future plans.
YT: Congratulations on your new service! Looks like Air North is spreading its wings far East. How are you feeling?
AN: We are nervous. It’s a new opportunity for us. Normally we just operate in the North-South type structure. This is the first time we’re going out towards the East. And it’s exciting times, but we’re just trying to satisfy our customers – the Yukon customers. So we’re not really in competition with anybody. We’re not trying to take anything away, or– But we– It’s important that we look after our Yukon customers.
YT: That’s great. So, first, tell us a little bit about Air North – the history background, so that– there are so many new people in the Yukon, and outsiders. They would like to know.
AN: Air North is 37 years old. It started as a bush flying company. And, going on 12 years now, they bought jets, and they entered the Vancouver market. So that’s become a really big part of what we do. And it’s 49% owned by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation – the development arm. And we’re providing service throughout the Yukon. And now looking to, obviously again, satisfy the needs of theYukoners by broadening our markets.
YT: About your new service– So when are you going to start this new service to Yellowknife and Ottawa?
AN: In the first quarter of 2014. We’re waiting for regulatory approval at the moment, so we can’t make the announcement on the days of the week or the times. But we’re looking at twice-weekly operation. And very obviously, we’re trying as much as possible to get it to fit in with what we believe – and what we’ve heard – is federal government and territorial government travel.
YT: That’s great. So, this new service, how many jobs will it create?
AN: It should create about ten extra jobs.
YT: Ten full-time?
AN: Ten full-time jobs. And the reason being is that we’re spreading our work day, so we’re coming in and leaving at different times. As opposed to now which has got a really early morning rush, and then a late afternoon rush. We’re going to be leaving at different times, which means that you have to stretch your shifts. And then you’re also flying a lot more. One flight, one way is equivalent to three round-trips to Vancouver. So you’re potentially putting a lot more time and, you know, wear on the aircraft, which is– we’ll need people to deal with that.
YT: Ok, where are you also having people from? Yellowknife and Ottawa too, to support there?
AN: Normally what we do is we take a local person, to run the operation there. But we use a local service provider. So, ourselves, we normally take on one person, in each city. But we do utilise– like we ground handle for other airlines here. They return the compliment and we pay them to do the work, yes.
YT: Good. So is this Air North’s own venture, or is there any department of government or any private organization supporting this?
AN: The idea for this flight was actually hatched on a Premier’s trip to Germany. We looked at– obviously done the math and the homework on the flight. We knew what was viable and what wasn’t viable. And we knew how to do the, you know, timing of the aircraft, and the number of duty hours. But when we went to Germany, myself, the Premier, and the Minister of Tourism spoke for a very long time about it, and that’s what really hatched the egg, rather than creating the egg. And so it was a fantastic idea, and that’s what really got us interested. So it was really the Premier’s trip to Germany that triggered it.
YT: So it’s got a little bit Government connection, right?
AN: Not so much Government connection, but more Government encouragement. The Government here is savvy enough to realise that by putting on this flight, it’s creating extra jobs, it’s creating extra revenue. It’s just building on a lot of stuff, which benefits the Yukon. So there’s no Government interference in our airline, whether it be federal or territorial, but they will, you know, do anything they can to create jobs to Yukoners, to stimulate the economy. And in line with that, this is a perfect meshing of the two synergies.
YT: Good. So what will be the traveling time from Yukon to Yellowknife, and from Yellowknife to Ottawa?
AN: It’s approximately an hour and a half from here to Yellowknife, depending obviously on the weather and which direction you’re flying in. And then there will be a 40-minute wait in Yellowknife while we refuel, take on passengers, you know – disembark and embark passengers. And then it’s about a four hour, fifteen minute flight down to Ottawa. So a big step up for us.
YT: A lot of time to eat candies!
AN: A lot of time, and we’re just lucky a lot of people start taking the tablets and laptops on board, because otherwise we’re going to end up with some really bored people.
YT: Yes. So, how well does this new service benefit the Yukon economy?
AN: It’s– well, straight up, it’s– we’re going to look at the green side. You know, a lot of people are flying from the Yukon down South to go back up to Yellowknife. You’re straight away cutting out all those carbon emissions by flying directly across. Then you’ve got the other side of the coin, where it’s creating new jobs. Those people in turn are spenders within the North. If you look at a lot of other airlines that say they’re Northern carriers, they truly aren’t because they’re based either in Calgary or Ottawa or somewhere like that. We are based here, so anything we earn, including revenues, stays in the North. And that’s important to the economy. Putting extra hours in the aircraft means, you know, that we’re servicing the aircraft at more frequent intervals. That means that, you know, we have to spend more money within the North. We’re even looking at trying to get, you know, a mechanics program up here in the North, which will benefit us because then we’ve got a pool to draw from. So the spinoffs from it are huge, for the Government, whether it be accommodation, housing, food, anything.
YT: Yes, yes. Tourism.
AN: Yeah. Talking about tourism, the tourism opportunities have just skyrocketed. Because you’ve got a market in the Ontario area, you know, Ontario-Quebec border, that would love to do Northern lights. And here we’re making it very viable that they can fly up for a weekend, and have three nights of aurora viewing – or three chances of aurora viewing – and going back. So it’s now viable. You’re not having to fly via somewhere. It’s four and a half hours up to Yellowknife, another hour and a half across. We’re looking at a big investment in tourism.
YT: That’s great. So in the East, why did you choose Ottawa instead of Toronto? Because in Toronto there are more people, I believe.
AN: Toronto is a four-hour train ride away. Montreal is a two-hour train ride away. We’ve kind of positioned ourselves in the middle of that triangle.
YT: Oh I see.
AN: It’s giving us a lot more opportunities. If you fly into Ottawa, you can catch a 40-minute flight down to Billy Bishop airport, which is downtown Toronto, and you’ll actually be in downtown Toronto quicker going via Ottawa than you would by flying to Pearson airport in Toronto. That’s the one side. The other side is: we know our customers. We know where they go – we follow the bags – we know where they go from our gateway cities in the South. And– like, we put on the Kelowna flight because a lot of people were sending bags to Kelowna. We know that Victoria and Ottawa are two other big hubs. So we chose Ottawa because there’s a lot more going there than there would be going to Toronto or Montreal. But it’s still central enough in all those cities to give you access to those cities if you need to be. And the third reason is that we look at where our territorial Government traffic goes, and where the Federal traffic comes from, and that’s Ottawa.
YT: Yes, that makes sense. So how many flights will fly every week on this new route? Two I think?
AN: It’s two return flights a week.
YT: Ok, that’s great. So how much traffic are you expecting from Yellowknife when it stops there?
AN: From Yellowknife? A lot, because it’s a slightly bigger population there than in the Yukon, number one. But they’ve also got a lot of diamond mines there, and the majority of– or, by far the biggest sector of workers at the diamond mines are from the East coast. So flying into Ottawa, there’s direct connections through to Newfoundland and to New Brunswick. And these are men that are on their break, and they really just want to get home quickly rather than spend half the day in Vancouver, or Edmonton, or Calgary, or somewhere. Or flying via the North – via Iqaluit. They actually want to be at home as soon as possible. So we’ve taken that into consideration as well.
YT: Great. So do you see any competition with the other airlines due to this new route?
AN: There’s always competition, no matter what you do. It’s who’s got the biggest buck, who takes the first try at it. This route – to Yellowknife – used to be operated a couple of years back, and it didn’t have the right market. And this is why we’ve combined the two. So not only do you have just a Whitehorse-Yellowknife, but you’ve now got a Whitehorse-Ottawa, and a Yellowknife-Ottawa option to make the flight viable. So we put three options in instead of one, which it’s– you know, it just means that you have to be less successful on one sector than combined successful on three sectors.
YT: Good. Air North is loved by passengers because it provides meals, cookies, things like these for free. So it’s a long trip. So what else are you going to do that– just to please passengers.
AN: Accordingly, if you travel one of our short flights, it’s different from the two-hour flight. And likewise, this will be different from– this four-hour flight will be different. We’re looking at a totally different menu – a more substantial meal than the big roll or– you know, that you get right now. We have looked at in-flight entertainment, but with the way technology is going right now– and we do look, and we do gather from our passengers that the majority carry either a tablet, a smartphone, or a laptop. And so, the days of providing in-flight entertainment are really becoming yesterday. I mean, we were having a conversation earlier about, you know, it’s– smart phone technology is the way to go. You can watch a movie. And so you’re putting that in the hands of the people as to what they want to watch.
YT: Yeah, now we don’t need TV’s in the flight.
AN: You don’t need TV’s in the flight. And a lot of people don’t realise how heavy the equipment is, to provide that in-flight service. I mean, you take any other 737 top operation – if each screen weighs half a kilogram. Right through the aircraft, you know. That’s an extra 60 kilograms. And there’s a cost to transporting that. Not only that, you’ve got the actual boxes underneath the middle seat. Not only does it compromise the middle seat passenger’s leg room, but it’s a really weighty piece of equipment. So by letting people use the equipment that they actually bring on board, we’re going to be saving cost there, and greenhouse gas emissions.
YT: Yeah, that makes sense. So you are going to connect Yukon and NWT with this new service. Great. Will you be starting service to Nunavut in future, to connect all the three territories – entire North?
AN: Absolutely, it’s on our radar. But connecting the third capital is really not servicing Yukoners, which is our main aim. Would we look at something? Absolutely. Would we look at anything. Do we get a lot of requests for it? Absolutely. We get a lot of requests to go across to Nunavut. But the big thing is that our business credo – our motto – is to service Yukoners, not to service people from the other territories. We don’t expect other people to come in and try and pirate our market, and we wouldn’t do the same.
YT: Ok. So, same thing. Will primary focus on Yukon, or are you going to ship some of your business to Northwest Territories?
AN: No. If we pick up business out of the Northwest Territories, like I was speaking about earlier, that’s a bonus that makes this flight viable. But the flight is intended to be a Whitehorse-Ottawa, or Whitehorse-Yellowknife. The fact that we get a bonus sector in that can make the flight viable. It’s just, you know, good planning.
YT: Ok. So, would you be buying new planes to meet needs of this new route, or do you already have enough fleet?
AN: We have a big enough fleet. I believe that our fleet is underutilized. When you look at the utilization of aircraft at other airlines in Canada, they’re operating an aircraft up to 14, 16 hours a day. Whereas our usage is way down from that. We don’t have the network they have, but what we do have is a plan for better aircraft utilization. We will actually bring aircraft in, rotate aircraft out, so that we’ve got more planes available to us to perform the routes that we need to.
YT: Are you exploring other destinations as well? South, East?
AN: Absolutely. We are looking the whole time. You know, if we don’t move, we’re going to get [inaudible], and it behooves us to actually look at other stations. Looking at BC is obviously in our interest, and in the interest of Yukoners. We’ve got to see where Yukoners go to university, where they shop, where they have family – that type of thing. And so it kind of highlights Victoria as a really stand-out destination. But we’ve got to learn to crawl before we walk, and we need to get the Yellowknife-Ottawa route running properly before we start exploring anything else.
YT: You added a new route at Kelowna this summer – seasonal route. How is that going?
AN: During the summer it was fantastic. We were full most flights. And some of the flights we actually had to put on a bigger aircraft, just to meet the capacity. It’s been highly successful. We extended it through the winter. We’re kind of in a trough season right now, between summer and winter. Although – you look outside – winter has struck, it hasn’t really sunk home yet. And there gets a point in time when people want to get out of the snow and the ice, and Kelowna becomes a really viable option, with good weather.
YT: Yeah, tourism.
AN: And good tourism. So from that point of view, it’s very very important. And we’re expecting an upturn in business, but currently, as I say, it is in a trough. But it’s not discouraging.
YT: Good. So you have your booking system online, through your website.
YT: So that causes the demand of the next generation, young people especially – they are tech-savvy. They are looking for booking system through tablets, iPhone apps, Android apps. Are you going to do something with–?
AN: Absolutely. We’re busy with that right now. We’ve just introduced online check-in. You can check-in online, you can get a boarding pass online. There’s a lot of that happening. But, once again, it’s a matter of learning to, you know, to crawl before you can walk. And we’ve got a fantastic team who are working on that. The product – the online check-in product – has been wildly successful, with a higher uptake, believe it or not, out of the Yukon than most southern cities. So we were very surprised at the higher uptake of online check-in.
YT: So how much percent of your business do you get from your website?
AN: From the red website, it’s by far the biggest– the majority of our business is done on the website, or through agencies, or through online travel agencies. But just as far as that goes – the online check-in – is about 30%, around there.
YT: Great, which is great. So my last question is: What do you see as future of Air North?
AN: Good question. And I ask myself that every day. Are we going in the right direction? What are we correctly? I think we have to cement ourselves as the airline of the Yukon, not try and be number 3 carrier, number 2, anything like that, within the country. We need to service the people that support us. We need to keep Whitehorse in the loop – in other words, we need to keep the base here. We need to work on that. And we need to provide a product that satisfies Yukoners, whether it’s bringing people to the Yukon – and letting Yukoners have that opportunity of business – or taking Yukoners out. So I see us as looking at more routes in the long-term, but not expanding that it becomes a beast that we can’t manage. I believe that we service our shareholders very well, and I think a lot of our expansion has to be supported by the shareholders. So whatever we do in the future – no matter what grand plans I might conjure up – I don’t think it’s anything that the board wouldn’t approve. But we have to keep that in mind.
YT: Alright, thank you so much for talking to Yukon Times. Thank you so much.
AN: Absolute pleasure, Gurdeep. Thank you.