Within three days of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and a subsequent ban on North American air travel, aircraft began flying over Nunavut again, sooner than most other regions.
But, since 9-11, air travellers in Nunavut and the airlines that serve them have endured a cascading set of changes that continue to impose costs and numerous inconveniences.
For one, air travellers in Nunavut have seen their ticket prices rise dramatically.
And that’s not all.
Air travellers must now show an identification card with a photo, not easy in a place where many lack drivers’ licenses.
They must also ensure that their reservations are made in the same name that appears on their photo ID card, a challenge when the spelling of Inuit names in English can vary wildly.
As well, travellers must show up for flights earlier and be prepared to go through security checks when heading to or from the South.
On board, they won’t be invited up to the cockpit when the plane is in the air, and airplane meals often don’t come with knives.
For airlines operating in Nunavut, 9-11 changed the rules of the game, starting with the freezing of all air traffic on Sept. 11.
Tracey Medve, the president of Canadian North, then working as a consultant for the airline, remembers “a creepy feeling of nothing happening” as she looked out over the tarmac at the Calgary airport.
“It was pretty dramatic,” she said.
The shutdown of all air traffic that day meant many passengers decided to change their plans or chose to stay at home after planes were permitted to fly again.
Within the first month after 9-11, the numbers of passengers fell “by double digits” on First Air’s lucrative routes between Iqaluit, the South, Yellowknife and Edmonton, the airline told Nunatsiaq News at the time.
Northern airlines tried to get a share of a $150 million federal assistance package for losses incurred during the two-day shutdown.
Instead, they were hit with a long list of new expenses, such as the required purchase of bullet-proof cockpit doors for every aircraft and the payment of higher landing fees to help cover security improvements at airports.
The government also introduced new air traveller security charges, which now amount to $7.12 one way and up to $14. 25 per round trip.
Insurance rates skyrocketed, as well, and “any time you pay money to a third party it cuts into your bottom line,” Medve said.
In the years after 9-11, security screenings also started to cause havoc in northern airports, like those in Iqaluit or Yellowknife, which were not built for the new required equipment or the line-ups of people waiting to go through security.
“If you look at the northern airports and what they were designed for, they were never designed for that kind of bottleneck,” Medve said.
“I think it impacts the northern carriers more substantially because of the facility shortcomings.”
Canadian North was also obliged to adjust its schedules, to allow for security measures in Iqaluit and Yellowknife. At these airports, passengers must send their hand baggage through an x-ray machine and then walk through a metal detector, along with an explosive check and possible body search, before they’re allowed to travel south. Their checked bags must be also be scanned before being loaded on to a plane heading south.
This means, for example, that passengers travelling by jet from Cambridge Bay to Edmonton must disembark to go through security in Yellowknife — and their bags have to be offloaded for scanning — before continuing south.
“So the airplane sits for a time,” she said. “There’s a cost somewhere for all that.”
Airlines must also now obtain special passes for employees who work on the airstrip ramp, even in the smallest airports in Nunavut.
”I can have a teeny little base in the North where I need a guy on the ramp and it might take weeks before we can get the proper security pass. In a base of five people, where one can’t go on the ramp, there’s now 20 per cent of my employees who can’t go on the ramp,” Medve said.
The fallout from 9-11 also affected international air routes in the North.
First Air had already cancelled its scheduled service from Iqaluit to Greenland shortly before 9-11.
But that service has never started up again, despite much lobbying in Canada and in Greenland, likely due to the higher costs which all airlines now pay for security, landing fees and fuel.
And this 9-11 fallout will continue to affect airlines and northern residents alike.
Both can look forward to another costly impact from 9-11: security checks on all cargo sent by air as of August 2012.
“It’s hard to predict what the impact will be, but it won’t be a positive one,” Medve said.
Canadian North is arguing that the North lacks the facilities to do these cargo security checks due to the large amount of cargo and the small number of cargo customers, who will be “inordinately burdened by having to cover the costs of that,” Medve said.
Since 9-11, Canadian North, like other airlines, has fine-tuned its emergency response plan, to have “a decision making core plugged in,” no matter what the situation is.
“We would deploy that kind of program if that happened again because you have to be on the ready to react,” Medve said.
The challenge is to balance security against reality.
“I guess the question always is how safe can we afford to be? You could be 100-per cent sure nothing would happen relative to an airplane only if you never left the ground, so that’s not a practical solution,” Medve said.
Jane George, NunatsiaqOnline
Fri, Sep 9 2011 10:44 PM
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