First Air

Like most of the other airlines serving Canada’s Arctic regions, First Air ended 2015 in a state of transition as it juggled assets and code-share arrangements in an effort to achieve the necessary balance for a viable, sustained operation.

“We’ve seen some significant furloughs and fleet changes as our airline supplements flying with other carriers,” said Capt. Peter Black, the First Air pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman. “It’s been a very difficult financial environment for all the northern airlines.”

Even in the best years, First Air constantly skates on the edge of profitability because of its extremely difficult operating environment, with high costs and low revenues. And 2015 was not its best year.

Owned by the Inuit people of Northern Québec, the airline connects major Canadian cities like Edmonton, Alb.; Montréal, Qué.; Ottawa, Ont.; and Winnipeg, Man., with 29 destinations in the country’s northernmost territories—an area the size of India but with fewer than 100,000 residents. The pilots often fly in extreme weather conditions to deliver passengers and vital cargo to far-flung communities where the “airport” may consist of a wooden shack next to a few thousand feet of hard-packed gravel.

In addition to providing scheduled and charter service, the airline offers contract work to businesses harvesting Canada’s natural resources, including oilfield workers and diamond miners. However, revenues for these operations ebb and flow based on the state of the world economy.

In 2015, the company downsized its fleet of older B-737-200s specially equipped to operate on gravel. First Air’s pair of ATR 72s left the airline in 2015 when they were sold to Hawaiian Airlines’ new interisland turboprop subsidiary. The company is currently bringing on board “new to the airline” ATR 42-500s, which will be a first for a Canadian airline. And in April, the carrier sold its last Hercules L-382 to Anchorage-based Lynden Air Cargo, marking the end of an era in Arctic aviation. Long a common sight at First Air’s western hub in Yellowknife, N.W.T., the two Hercs were flown by First Air crews for almost 20 years.

The fleet changes have led to furloughs and massive disruptions and displacements as the pilots who remain have had to change bases, seats, and aircraft within the operation. “We currently have about 25 crewmembers on our furlough list, which may not seem like much until you remember that our airline only has about 100 active pilots total,” Black said.

First Air maintains code-share agreements with several airlines in the region that allow the involved flying partners to sell seats on certain flights in each other’s respective flying networks. The goal of these relationships is to provide operational efficiencies by sharing the ability to tailor capacity to meet changing market needs.

For example, Summit Air now flies Summit Avro RJ85s in First Air colors under a wet-lease arrangement on routes formerly flown by First Air’s own B-737-200s. At the same time, First Air is using ATRs to fly cargo routes to Thunder Bay, Ont., for CargoJet. Other code-share agreements and route swaps are in place with Calm Air.

“The challenge is to find the right aircraft for the right route. It’s not an Airbus versus Boeing situation. In the north, we have a huge variety of airframes, and our management has been trying very hard to simplify the fleet to make it as economical as possible. But every change impacts the pilot group,” explained Black.

To address pilot concerns about job stability and improve crewmember quality of life, the MEC initiated contract talks late last year. The MEC surveyed the members to assess pilot priorities, and MEC negotiators began meeting with management in December.

In addition to maximizing operational efficiencies, management also appears to be maximizing its labour negotiations efforts—the company is simultaneously entering talks with its flight attendants and aircraft maintenance personnel as well as the pilots.

Originally a division of Bradley Air Services, First Air celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. 

First Air Hawker Siddeley HS 748 - ALPA
The Hawker Siddeley HS 748 was one of First Air’s workhorses before it was replaced by newer ATR turboprops (below).
First Air ATR turboprop - ALPA