First Air

The Canadian Arctic is probably not the first place most people think of as a vacation destination. However, for the adventurous and seasoned world traveler attracted to its wide-open spaces and scenic vistas, the country’s far north has a lot to offer.

Although the terrain might be frozen and the temperatures low, travelers to the Arctic can experience activities including bobsledding, ice kayaking and trekking onto glaciers.

“The people who come to us are people who have been to many places around the world several times and they want to do something else while on holiday,” says Bert van der Stege, vice president of commercial for First Air, the largest provider of air service to Canada’s northern territories. “There are a lot of beautiful things to see and a lot of things to do.”

First Air serves 29 northern communities in Canada including Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, and Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, the country’s northernmost and — in land area terms — largest territory. The airline offers nonstop flights from Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and Edmonton, and connecting services to other large metropolitan areas in Canada. 

“We take a lot of people from the major cities up north because they want a greater sense of what their country has to offer,” van der Stege says. “In Canada, you only really learn about the North in school or in museums and on TV. We offer an option for people who’ve done everything, have been to Paris and Las Vegas three times, but feel there’s something in their own country they haven’t experienced that is worth going to see.” 

First Air serves approximately 230,000 passengers, including travelers and researchers, annually. In addition, the airline carries 

more than 22 million kilograms (48.5 million pounds) of freight and mail to the northern territories. “Some of the communities we serve have only 200 residents, but they depend on air transit for their goods,” he adds.

Finding Efficiencies

First Air next year will celebrate its 70th anniversary. This accomplishment comes at a time of significant change for the airline, which, like others in Canada, has to be completely financially self-sufficient. Unlike U.S. or European Union-based carriers, Canadian airlines do not receive a federal or other subsidy for essential air service. This made it more difficult for First Air to continue to operate when, five years ago, the airline began posting significant losses as a result of the global recession and high cost of operating.

The company last year launched a three-year restructuring plan meant to right its financial ship. This plan included analyzing First Air’s long-established way of doing business. “Along with our legacy came a culture of people doing what they do because that’s just the way it had always been done,” van der Stege says. “We wanted people to question everything that we’ve been doing, determine if there’s a better way to do it and find efficiencies in our operations.”

The first two years of the restructuring in 2014 and this year involved reducing the number of aircraft types First Air operated and closing some aircraft bays. Personnel levels were kept mostly consistent, and no large staff reduction was performed. 

The airline reports that it will post a profit for 2015 and achieve its objective of a turnaround, but “we’re still not where we want to be,” he adds. “We will never stop looking for better ways of doing what we do.”

The company next year will begin to invest in its fleet. First Air is investing $100 million in new and replacement aircraft including new Boeing 737 400 passenger and combination aircraft and six ATR 42 500 aircraft.  

First Air is also increasing the number of partnerships it has with other airlines serving northern Canada. This includes interline connections for both cargo and passenger trips. “Our philosophy is to serve northern Canada from every major city, either by our own operations or through our interline partners,” van der Stege says. “We feel we can serve customers much better by cooperating and aligning our schedules with that of others.”

In cooperation with other airlines, First Air is able to take passengers from southern Canada to northern destinations more efficiently. “We feel that, by co-sharing services, we can we serve our customers much better,” he adds. “Aligning our schedules has assured us that people can travel from Ottawa to the far north in the same day.” Resolute Bay, the airline’s northernmost destination, is a six-hour flight from Ottawa with a quick stop-over at its Iqaluit hub.  

‘Essential Provider’

First Air was established in 1946 by Canadian aviation pioneer Russ Bradley. Bradley, along with partner Weldy Phipps, developed large balloon-like “tundra tires” after receiving a contract from the Geological Survey of Canada. The tires allowed the airline’s clients to take off and land in more locations within Arctic Canada.

Today, First Air is owned by Makivik Corp., an Inuit-owned organization responsible for administering the land claim settlement of the Inuit of northern Quebec. The corporation’s strong community ties are reflected across First Air’s operations. 

“We fly to many communities that are entirely dependent on air transportation, so the relationship we have with passengers and our communities is different than that of a traditional airline,” van der Stege says. “Our customers know about the challenges we face and have respect for what we do as an airline.”

The company participates in a number of community events. In March, First Air hosted a NHL Stanley Cup® tour to several points in Northern Canada, including locations where it had never previously been. “We’re very proud of being an essential service provider and being there for 70 years and making a real difference in people’s lives,” he adds. 

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