Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From China to Iqaluit

Airlifting more than 225,000 kilograms of freight every week

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IQALUIT, Nunavut -- The thing that you never think about as a passenger on an aircraft hurtling toward takeoff is that the length of the runway is finite -- it has an end, marked by big yellow-and-black barriers that could, shall we say, trip the aircraft, snag its wheels and bring it down before it gets up.

But looking forward from the cockpit of a Boeing 767 taking off from Winnipeg International Airport at 270 km/h, the end of the road very quickly becomes clear. It wasn't frightening, but I must say the approaching end focused my mind until the instant when all became comparatively silent and we "slipped the surly bonds" with lots of runway to spare, climbing at a rate that was exhilarating to witness through the large and panoramic windows of the cockpit.

 

So began my flight aboard a First Air freighter carrying nearly 41,000 kilograms of provisions to Iqaluit on Baffin Island in Nunavut, 2,270 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

The 767, the largest of First Air's fleet of 21 aircraft, and the largest aircraft servicing the North, is not the Arctic's lifeline, but it is an important strand in the logistical web that sustains the people of the Far North in their remote and far-flung communities.

Based out of Ottawa, the First Air 767 flies five or six times a week to Iqaluit, moving more than 226,000 kilograms of freight, half of which is destined for stores operated by Winnipeg's North West Company, the modern successor of the Hudson's Bay Co., which established trade into the North in 1670.

When I first considered taking the flight, I imagined crossing the coast of Manitoba into James Bay -- The Coast! Of Manitoba! -- and flying another 1,200 kilometres over the choppy waters of Hudson Bay in a couple of hours. I imagined the months explorer Henry Hudson spent in 1611 covering the same distance -- a lifetime, as it turned out for Hudson, whose crew mutinied and set him adrift to perish.

But a straight line from Winnipeg does not cross the Manitoba coast, but rather the Ontario coast at Fort Severn, and then across the south and north coasts of Kuujjuaq region in northern Quebec.

I suspect, however, the Manitoba coast looks much like the Ontario coast from 35,000 feet. As we came to land's end after crossing what pilot Gord Wallace called "a great expanse of very little," we could see far below seeming-corrugated mud flats of flowing dun- and bone-coloured shore ending at a pencil-thin line of yellow beach, beyond which the waters were clouded muddy for miles, finally clearing into an expanse of pen-ink blue.

There was nothing else to see -- water and clouds, clouds and water. No signs of man, only of God.

Wallace said that occasionally he will spot a ship steaming to Churchill, but only in season. On this day, however, we saw one other sign of humanity -- a jetliner about 30 kilometres distant, looking much like a white rocket streaking west propelled by a tail of black smoke.

Flying First Air is nothing like the reality-show fantasies seen on History Channel. In fact, First Air crew are dismissive, even derisive, of the TV programs.

"They make it seem dramatic and dangerous," first officer Will Stonehouse said. "But there's no room for romance in aviation. You wouldn't catch me working there."

Careful preparation starts long before takeoff. Goods -- mostly dry goods, frozen foods and sundries -- are moved by North West Co. to the First Air warehouse at the Winnipeg airport. There they are loaded onto aluminum "pizza-plate" pallets and weighed. A computer then determines by weight where each of 19 pallets will be positioned inside the hold to achieve balance. (Aircraft are much like boats -- put too much weight to the front, back or sides and they will want to tip in that direction in the air, which is fluid). Each pallet is locked in place -- no loose cannons allowed.

The cargo this day consists of appliances -- all the way from China, as Leonard Cohen sang -- sundries and a great deal of those frowned-upon northern staples -- frozen pizza and chicken-things, battered this and that, potato chips and pop.

To some extent, the relative flow of fast food and snacks is slowing as a result of a year-old federal program that switched transport subsidies from pretty much anything that could be flown north to more nutritious foods -- fresh produce, dairy, meats.

The program, well-received in the south where nutritious food is plentiful and cheap compared to junk, has not proved a winner in the North, where it has become a lightning rod for discontent about the high cost of food, healthy or otherwise.

Much of the rancour is aimed at the North West Co., which pretty much owns the grocery market in the North, with 130 stores dispensing more than $1 billion of goods ($1.5 billion if you throw in the rest of Canada and the Caribbean).

Criticism of the near-monopoly, however, is dismissed by thoughtful northerners such as Jim Bell, the editor of Nunatsiaq News, a Michener-nominated weekly newspaper based in Iqaluit. Bell said that with annual reports indicating that North West last year had a six per cent return on operations, there is no evidence of gouging, as critics charge.

Rather, he says, the price of North West products, like everything else in the North, is the result of the punishing costs posed by logistical challenges.

Not surprisingly, that's the position taken by Craig Gilpin, chief corporate officer of the North West Co.

"We get lots of media talk about prices in the North," he said. "And we understand it. We live there."

Utility costs, he said, are 400 per cent to 500 per cent higher in the North than the south, construction costs are at least double. The company maintains 500 housing units for some of its 6,900 employees. A simple thing like a repair to a refrigeration unit can cost 20 times the rate in the south as it requires airlifting a repairman, his equipment and, hopefully, the right parts to a remote site, where he must be fed and sheltered.

Planning is mind-boggling and long-range. How much flour can be sea-lifted to Resolute next year? What might be the demand in Repulse for snowmobiles and can they be moved cost-effectively by truck to Thompson, train to Churchill and barge to market before freeze-up? Or should they come around by sea from the Quebec north shore?

So, it's trucks as far as feasible, track as far as possible, barges as much as floatable and air when all else is impossible. Remember: There are no roads from anywhere in Nunavut to anywhere else.

"We use the lowest-cost option to get goods the farthest north possible," Gilpin succinctly explained.

The nutrition subsidies, which replaced the former food mail subsides, have cut prices of eligible, perishable air-lift goods by 15 per cent on average, Gilpin said.

But still there are complaints. Flour is nutritious, for example, but is not subsidized because it can be moved by barge in summer. Fresh chicken is eligible, but frozen, coated chicken, which many find more desirable, is ineligible.

Gilpin seemed sympathetic to complaints about the lack of subsidy for some products -- for example disposable diapers, which are as "essential" to contemporary life in the North as they are in the south, perhaps more so.

Which brings us back to the First Air 767-200. First Air purchased the aircraft, familiar to most travellers as a passenger plane (and to buffs as the model flown by terrorists into the Twin Towers) when it realized it could move twice as much cargo as a 727 for the same cost in fuel.

So, too, did North West Co., which was shipping cargo to Ottawa to take advantage of the aircraft's economies of scale. But then North West asked: Why truck stuff to Ottawa that could be flown north from Winnipeg? That led to an agreement to fly, starting just two months ago in July, once a week loaded from Ottawa to Iqaluit on Wednesdays, then to Winnipeg, where it is loaded on Thursday mornings, flown back to Iqaluit in the afternoon and then to Ottawa in the evening to start over.

First Air says the arrangement will save $650,000 a year, all of which is to be passed on to consumers in lower prices -- not much in a more than $1-billion equation, but nothing to sneeze at, either.

Gilpin said despite its critics, North West faces considerable competition by Internet and is committed to lowest-possible pricing.

It has an arrangement with Winnipeg's Dufresne Furniture, for example, to supply compact designs that not only fit easily into the 767, but then into First Air's seven smaller 737s, its two Hercs and 11 ATRs, which move the payloads on from Iqaluit across the unbelievably vast North. The territory of Nunavut, for example, has a population of 33,000 spread over two million square kilometres -- 20 per cent of Canada's entire land mass.

First Air, owned by a Makivik Corp., a "birthright" corporation created from money flowing to the Inuit from the James Bay Agreement in Quebec, is not a private company in the same mould as North West Co., but it can hardly be accused of gouging, operating by most accounts at break-even.

"Any profit goes back into investment in the communities," Bill Thompson, vice-president of commercial operations, said. "We build arenas, gymnasiums, what have you.

"When we started, aboriginals were not involved in airlines. Land claims gave us money to invest. We looked at the isolation, the need for air service. To have control of the type of service that we wanted it to be, it made sense to invest in airlines."

A few minutes short of Iqaluit, warnings sounded on the 767. I was invited to take, again, a coveted cockpit seat. There below was Frobisher Bay, a fiord, really, leading straight to the runway at Iqaluit, a runway so long and large that it was used to cold-weather test the world's largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380.

Islands began to appear, then a rocky, treeless, low-mountained shoreline of drab-green and grey. The bay led straight to the runway built by the U.S. army in the distant past when Iqaluit didn't exist except as a word meaning "many fish."

Over there a huddle of houses -- Apex, the original Inuit village, as I learned -- then more, and then a townsite, small city of gaily coloured two-, three-, even four-storey buildings, most shining-new.

We touched down and taxied past the "yellow-submarine" terminal to the First Air hanger. The cargo-bay doors opened. Heavy-lift machines appeared and started to unload the nearly 41,000 kg of stuff to be dispersed quickly across the northern frontier by increasingly smaller aircraft.

Elapsed time from "O Canada" to the "True North Strong and Free?" Three hours and two minutes.

gerald.flood@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2012 A7

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