The little airline that could
KUUJJUAQ, Quebec-Well, maybe not so little anymore. With 21 aircraft, 400
employees, and Transport Canada's highest rating for maintenance, Air Inuit
is currently the largest commercial airline serving the province of Quebec
- and still growing.
"We've added five aircraft in the last year and a half," said George
Berthe, the energetic young Inuk chairman of the airline, started in 1978
by Makivik Corp., which the Inuit of Nunavik set up to administer a land
claims agreement they signed in 1975. "The expansion has been fueled by
increased economic activity in the region. There are more jobs in
industries like construction, and with more money in the economy, local
people have disposable income and the ability to travel."
Other airlines may be losing money, but not the one Berthe runs. Air Inuit
had a 5 percent profit margin last year and returned millions of dollars to
Nunavik, an area about the size of France that comprises the northernmost
reaches of Quebec.
A wide array of incentives, including an annual 75-percent-off coupon for
every single local resident and discounts for high school sports teams and
honeymooners, has helped draw customers. "All these programs have worked
well for us," said Berthe, who spends his days shuttling back and forth
between a light-filled corner office overlooking Nunavik's snowy expanses
and the airport just outside Kuujjuaq. "If people try flying and like it,
they'll travel again."
"Air Inuit is not just profitable," said Johnny Adams, one of the airline's
first Inuk pilots and now president of Kativik Regional Government, which
administers Nunavik. "It and our other airline, First Air, are also
contributing to society, which is something people in our region are proud
of." (Purchased by Makivik in 1989, First Air connects the entire
east-to-west span of Canadian Arctic with the nation's southern cities.)
"We are in business to make money with a social conscience," said Berthe.
"Every step of the way, we have to figure out if we're helping people."
One important contribution is an emergency service, with aircraft and
personnel on round-the-clock standby to help in crises ranging from
fishermen lost at sea to heart attacks in Nunavik's 14 isolated villages,
which range in population from 280 to 2,000. "Air Inuit is a lifeline,"
said Berthe. "There are no highways connecting communities up here, so we
use the skyway. You hear the roar of the engine, and you know help is on
the way. We might medevac someone to one of our two hospitals or
participate in a search and rescue operation. We've saved thousands of
lives over the years."
The airline carries cargo that would be considered unusual in other parts
of the world, including baby walruses and sled dogs. To encourage the
propagation of the true Inuit husky, Air Inuit gives breeders of such dogs
a discount. To the same end, Berthe and Pita Aatami, president of Makivik
Corp., started the annual 10-day Ivakkak dog-sled race five years ago;
today, the airline offers participants in the popular competition free
passes at race time. Dogs and equipment, such as sleds, also fly gratis.
Over the years, Air Inuit has developed special capabilities. A surge in
mineral exploration in the Arctic has required that Air Inuit build ice
runways to accommodate travel to and from the sites. "We're landing Dash
8s, 748s, and Twin Otters on ice. These are pretty large turboprop
aircraft," Berthe explained. "It's become an expertise of ours, and we're
called on by different regions."
"Traditionally, we were masters of the land and the sea," said Berthe.
"Now, we have conquered the sky."