Evidence of meeting #118 for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in the 44th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was north.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Joseph Sparling  President, Air North
Shelly De Caria  President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian North Inc.
Bernard Gervais  Executive Director, Northern Air Transport Association
Gladys Atrill  Mayor, Town of Smithers
Daniel Côté  President, Air Transport Commitee, Union des municipalités du Québec
Nicholas Purich  Chief Financial Officer, Canadian North Inc.

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

Mark Strahl Conservative Chilliwack—Hope, BC

Thank you to the witnesses.

I want to follow up on that, Mr. Sparling.

We just came off of a study for the more southern routes and the major airlines. It talked about some of the reasons that Lynx Air and some others have failed on some of the more traditional routes of Vancouver, Toronto, etc. That was their bread and butter, and they couldn't make it work. We heard about fees. We heard about the regulatory environment.

I know that both of the northern airlines mentioned reconsidering the user-pay model. We know that the Government of Canada heavily subsidizes some modes of transport. I just read an article this morning about the Canadian, the Vancouver-to-Toronto train. It subsidizes the passengers at about $1,000 per passenger for what can only be described as tourist travel. No one's travelling that route for business or for essential services, I would argue.

How do you feel the government should treat the different modes of transport between, say, rail in the south and air in the north?

You said that they should reconsider the user-pay model. What exactly are you looking for there?

May 30th, 2024 / 12:15 p.m.

President, Air North

Joseph Sparling

We don't have toll booths on our highways. We all agree that highways are necessary pieces of infrastructure, and the funding for highways is generally provided out of the public coffers. Aviation is treated differently. The airport rents are probably the biggest example of where the government is expecting users to pay for that infrastructure.

I think there's no better case for publicly funded infrastructure than air travel in rural Canada. You've heard every witness here talk about the large geography and the small population and how air travel is a necessity. I think the infrastructure for air service should be treated in the same manner as our highway infrastructure. It's necessary and it should be publicly funded.

To the best of my knowledge, many other countries treat it that way, if not most other countries, so I think it's time for a change in the model. The notion of an ultra-low-cost carrier in Canada is a bit of an oxymoron, because we're not an ultra-low-cost environment, and I think those are steps that need to be taken. Make us a lower-cost environment and airfares can go down.

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Mark Strahl Conservative Chilliwack—Hope, BC

To the folks at Canadian North, you also spoke—you both did, but perhaps more the Canadian North folks—about the gravel runway issue. I'm hoping you can talk to me about whether or not the issue of paving some runways, which would allow for additional types of aircraft, is a possibility, given the climate in some of those places.

Would those sorts of investments actually bring competition from some of the bigger carriers that would then have access to those airports, whereas they currently wouldn't have equipment that's capable of landing on some of those gravel runways?

12:20 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian North Inc.

Shelly De Caria

I'm going to use Cambridge Bay as an example.

We needed a gravel kit-equipped jet to be able to land there. We had to retire that Boeing 737-200 because it was a one-off in our fleet, but also because they no longer produce the parts you need to be able to operate. The only thing that could replace that service going into Cambridge Bay was two ATRs—one passenger and one freighter—so that's two different kinds of aircraft that are going now at the cost of the one Boeing 737-200 that we had prior. This is obviously a big impact on that community. Having a paved runway would absolutely help with the Boeing going in.

Other carriers would likely take that opportunity. They won't invest, though, in the other communities we serve in the ATR markets that are much smaller with gravel.

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Mark Strahl Conservative Chilliwack—Hope, BC

You mentioned as well regulatory adjustments that you felt needed to be made. Could you expand on that in the time we have left?

12:20 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian North Inc.

Shelly De Caria

Absolutely. We operate in a very unique environment, and the regulatory policies we have in place do not contribute to the success that we have. The APPR and the pilot and crew duty limitations have heavily impacted what we are able to fly in a day, in comparison to what we were doing two years ago. People need to understand our communities in order to make those adjustments.

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Schiefke

Thank you very much.

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Mark Strahl Conservative Chilliwack—Hope, BC

Thank you.

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Schiefke

Thank you very much, Mr. Strahl.

Next we have Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers, the floor is yours. You have five minutes, sir.

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Churence Rogers Liberal Bonavista—Burin—Trinity, NL

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to all of the witnesses with us today participating in this very important study. With your knowledge, experience and involvement in the airline industry in rural and remote areas of Canada, we appreciate the information you provide.

I know that for all of us as MPs, as we travel to extreme areas of the country and from one end to the other, like Mr. Bachrach in western Canada and myself in Newfoundland and Labrador, the challenges we face on a regular basis flying home to get back to our ridings are extreme. Flying into Gander, sometimes it takes me a day and a half to get home from Ottawa, if you can imagine that.

I know a lot of challenges have to do with weather, and there are all kinds of issues around staff shortages with major airlines like Air Canada and WestJet. We've had those folks here talk to us about this stuff.

What we want to find out as a committee, of course, is what you can tell us we can improve in the airline industry for our rural and remote areas. What do we need to do as a government, and what do we need to do as an industry?

Mr. Sparling, given your research and your extensive experience with Air North, I'd like first of all for you to talk to us about the challenges you have faced, even though you identified some things in your previous comments, and some of the lessons you've learned operating in northern Canada—for example, operating aircraft and so on. Take a few minutes, and if anybody else would like to jump in on that, I'd welcome your comments.

Mr. Sparling, please go ahead.

12:25 p.m.

President, Air North

Joseph Sparling

I spoke a bit about the difference between our turboprop routes, our northern routes, and our southern routes and the increased costs and operational challenges. Shelly mentioned similar challenges with Canadian North.

The investment in infrastructure and the ability to upgrade our fleets is limited by the gravel runways that we operate into, the lack of LPV approaches in the north and the higher weather limits. There are a greater number of weather delays, a greater number of turnbacks and fewer alternates. All of those things make the northern operations more challenging, and if we can address some of those things through investments in infrastructure, it would improve our ability to provide the service that the communities we serve expect.

On your situation getting into Gander, if it's foggy, it's foggy, and there's not much anybody can do. In Dawson City, one of our key northern airports, the approach limits are better than 1,000 feet. Compare that with Vancouver, where your limits are 200 feet. Increasing the approach capability will increase the reliability of the service.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Churence Rogers Liberal Bonavista—Burin—Trinity, NL

Shelly, do you want to comment?

12:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian North Inc.

Shelly De Caria

I think it's recognizing the realities that we have. The regulations that are in place don't recognize those.

We face an average of 175 weather cancellations a month, with a big part of it in Baffin Island. Our closest airport from Iqaluit is an hour away on a jet, and an hour and a half away on an ATR. Those operational expenses cannot be overlooked.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Churence Rogers Liberal Bonavista—Burin—Trinity, NL

I've flown on Canadian North and enjoyed the flight, quite frankly, to the north.

I'd like to ask all of you, for the benefit of the committee, to make specific recommendations, as you've been doing today, that would really inform this study. Be specific. Be direct. Give us the benefit of your knowledge and experience. Make sure that we know exactly what it is that we as a committee should be recommending in this study to the Government of Canada.

12:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian North Inc.

Shelly De Caria

Flying to Qikiqtarjuaq in the middle of winter, I think you would recognize the hardships that we face. Policies that are created without realizing the realities that we face have been really challenging for us. Include our voice in the decisions that are being made, because we know the north and the rural communities the best.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Churence Rogers Liberal Bonavista—Burin—Trinity, NL

I recognize that the COVID period, of course, was a very difficult time. The Government of Canada invested significant dollars in infrastructure and support for airports and so on. That's the kind of thing that I think is the only thing that might help in terms of improving services in rural and remote areas of the country.

Thanks to all of you.

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Peter Schiefke

Thank you very much, Mr. Rogers.

Next we have Mr. Muys.

Mr. Muys, the floor is yours. You have five minutes, sir.

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Muys Conservative Flamborough—Glanbrook, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to all the witnesses for taking time to appear, both in person and virtually, and to those who have travelled.

The comment has certainly been made a number of times about this being a lifeline for communities.

Ms. De Caria, you mentioned in your opening remarks that there are 21 communities you service that would otherwise have no access.

Whether it's you or other witnesses, is it possible to quantify how many communities or a range of number of communities in Canada fall into that camp? It's more than 21, I'm presuming.

12:25 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian North Inc.

Shelly De Caria

We have 21 that are isolated with no road access. We service 25 communities in the Arctic, but 21 of them are isolated. The only way in is by our aircraft.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Muys Conservative Flamborough—Glanbrook, ON

Right, but are there other communities outside of those 25?

12:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian North Inc.

Shelly De Caria

Absolutely.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Muys Conservative Flamborough—Glanbrook, ON

How many in Canada would there be?

12:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian North Inc.

Shelly De Caria

Nunavik alone has 15. We only service one of those.

I can't give you an exact number as to how many are....

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Muys Conservative Flamborough—Glanbrook, ON

Just for context, I want to understand the volume we're talking about.

12:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian North Inc.

Shelly De Caria

In the 25 communities, we have 130,000 people. As I mentioned, that's equal to one city here down south. A lot of those...I'm from Kuujjuaq. It's a jet service, and there are 3,000 people.