Thursday, November 26, 2015

Plane trouble

I was poking around on Twitter the other night, as par for course, and noticed yet another Iqaluitmuit practically begging WestJet to start flying here.

This wasn’t the first person I’ve seen doing it. For that matter, I’ve done it.  Few companies in Canada do social media as well as WestJet. They’re playing it coy for right now…

So why the desperate need for WestJet to come to Iqaluit? After all, we’re serviced by two airlines. They allow two pieces of luggage weighing 70 pounds each on board. They feed you on the plane. Hell, you can ever get the famous First Air ‘special” coffee (special = booze).

Well, let’s do a little test. Let’s say I want to fly from Iqaluit to Ottawa in the middle of January. How about Tuesday, January 12 and return on Tuesday, January 19. Middle of January, middle of the week. Not exactly a peak travel period.

So with taxes and fees, that’ll set you back $2,418.15.

Yeah, let’s also now take a moment to stop hyper-ventilating. For some comparison, I flew from Ottawa to Colombo, Sri Lanka a couple of years ago for about $1,200. Colombo is half way around the world. Ottawa is three hours away. I'm having trouble reconciling the math.

Plane tickets to and from Iqaluit have never been cheap. But you could always find some ways to offset the damage. A seat sale every now and then. Or perhaps you had a discount code from being a government employee.

Even with those codes, in most cases you’re still looking at ticket prices north of $1,500. And neither airline has offered a seat sale worth a damn this year.

You could say, “well, maybe Canadian North will be different?” I’m honestly not going to check because it won’t be.  There was never much breathing space between the two of main Nunavut airlines, but ever since they signed a codesharing agreement there’s been less. I’m not going to go into all the technical details about it, but let’s just say there’s not a single person in Nunavut who likes it, unless you work for an airline.  It feels like the airlines are providing cheaper service while charging record high tickets prices. So, more for less. Always what you want in a service provider.

So yeah, it’s been a rough year for travel. Normally Iqaluit becomes a ghost town at Christmas with so many people flying out. This year, at least in our circle of acquaintances, a record number of them are staying in town. A lot of them simply can’t afford to fly out, especially if they have kids.

I mention all of this because I’ve chatted with some in the airline industry saying that no other airline will come to Iqaluit because the passenger volumes aren’t high enough. That both airlines depend heavily on cargo and medical travel to make their money, something presumably that Air Canada or WestJet wouldn’t get (The Government of Nunavut, as a rule, supports Inuit-owned businesses).

Plus, Air Canada had a truly spectacular failure flying into Iqaluit. They lasted maybe a year. Granted, they came here in the dumbest way possible. They used a plane that was ill-equipped to fly to Iqaluit (small cargo space, couldn’t fly if it was colder than -35C, etc.) Plus, everyone used their Aeroplan Points with them. Finally, people were still fairly loyal to Canadian North and First Air. Or at least their better luggage allowances.

Air Canada drove prices down for a year, and once they left, tickets went up almost immediately.

This is getting a little rambly, but my point is, I think WestJet is going to come here. There’s a new airport opening in Iqaluit in 2017 (itself a source of no small amount of controversy). Which would make it the perfect time for new airlines to fly in. They can actually have their own counter space and staff rather than having to share the current over-crowded airport.

WestJet wouldn’t get hammered with the points problem that Air Canada did. First Air/Canadian North have done a superb job of burning a lot of their customer loyalty at this point. All WestJet has to do is come and make it work for a year or so with cheaper tickets and I’m pretty sure they’ll break one of those airlines, or force a merger.

People are just getting deeply, deeply fed up with how much it costs to fly here. For years it was “eh, it’s the North.” I think it’s moved beyond that into genuine annoyance and a desire for something cheaper. You can only handle $2,400 for a three hour flight for so long.

This is going to cause a whole new kind of rackets, I’m sure. If people in Iqaluit are pissed, it’s probably nothing compared to people who live in the smaller communities, who are paying a lot and not getting top notch service. And what happens if one of the Northern airlines goes bankrupt? What will it mean for some of the smaller communities? Will they get few flights?

So yeah, a lot of unknowns. But I think it’s a matter of when, and not if, before WestJet starts flying here.  Then things get interesting. Cheaper, but interesting.

Last Five
1. Sleep - Garbage
2. My favorite song - Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
3. Gypsy biker - Bruce Springsteen
4. You want history - Kaiser Chiefs
5. Fireside - Arctic Monkeys

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