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Should the GN form its own airline? Arctic Bay businessman says yes

While the Government of Nunavut is attempting to attract competitors through its Airline Procurement Strategy, Arctic Bay businessman Frank May is advocating that the GN should make flying a public service.

Canadian North and First Air are hoping to have federal approval to merge their operations by the end of this year. Arctic Bay businessman Frank May would prefer that the territorial government take over air travel for Nunavummiut.
Brian Tattuinee photo

"The extremely high cost of air travel reflects through everything else that you try to do, and because 95 per cent of what happens up here is government, it's government who's paying. So the government might as well take over the airline," he said.

May describes himself, in many ways, as a liberterian/"small-c" conservative, but when it comes to flights in Nunavut, he said he has come to realize the free market isn't necessarily the best alternative.

That's the alternative that the GN is aiming to expand, however. Through its procurement strategy, the territorial government is hoping to entice more air carriers to enter the market in Nunavut. Economic Development and Transportation Minister David Akeeagok said he's confident additional airlines will express interest in providing duty, medical and personal travel as well as freight to each of Nunavut's three regions, which the strategy recommends be served separately.

"We're reaching out and we're making it available to other carriers. There's opportunity here," Akeeagok said. "It is quite a huge chunk of money that this government spends just on medical travel alone. That should get some interest."

He said he didn't know yet whether any southern carriers have offered their services in Nunavut. That answer should come around the end of the year, he said.

"As a minister, I'm not going in and asking while the procurement process is still open," he said of the strategy, which is being overseen by German-based Lufthansa Consulting.

When Nunavut News contacted Air Canada, WestJet and Calm Air shortly after the proposed First Air and Canadian North merger was announced in July, representatives from all three companies said they expected their operations to remain status quo for the territory, which for Air Canada and WestJet is nothing at all.

In regards to the proposed merger of the two largest airlines that have long served Nunavut, Akeeagok is "keeping a close eye on" airfares and freight costs as the airlines' unification may receive regulatory approval before the government awards its contracts through the procurement strategy.

"We need to ensure that there's continued services up there," he said of the High Arctic communities. "We do need to look after our public."

Akeeagok said the GN will seek to be an intervenor – formally expressing its concerns – when the Competition Bureau or Transport Canada holds hearings on the proposed merger.

While running for MLA of Quttiktuq in the 2017 territorial election, Akeeagok made air travel one of his priorities, stating: "With travel cost almost impossible for personal travel, and the high cost of freight, our government needs to assist where possible to make this reasonable."

He said he's heard ongoing concern from his constituents in Arctic Bay, Grise Fiord and Resolute about ticket prices but very little pertaining to the merger as each of those communities is already served by only one airline.

May, speaking as owner of Ikpiaryuk Services Ltd. and not in his capacity as mayor of Arctic Bay, said airfares are already so costly that he's essentially become indifferent to the idea of further price hikes.

"At $7,200 for a round-trip (flight) to Ottawa, if they raise it another 20 per cent, who cares? It's so damn high now you can't see the difference," he said.

May is fully aware, however, that high operating costs in the North are a factor.

"Really, it's not that they (the airlines) are evil. It's just that that's the way it is," he said. "As a businessperson, I don't want to talk them down because I'm in business and I know what things cost, although First Air is part of the problem."