Two women crowd near a phone before they board a plane at Iqaluit’s airport.
The woman holding the phone says she’ll see the person on the other end of the video call soon. It’s April 14, and the pair are about to board the first direct flight between Iqaluit and Kuujjuaq in approximately two years.
A Nunatsiaq News reporter was also among the first 10 passengers to take the trip.
Canadian North announced in mid-March plans to resume its direct flights between the two communities.
The airline is using a Boeing 737-400 for the route, which can take 156 passengers, according its website. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the plane starts in Iqaluit, stops in Kuujjuaq, then travels to Montreal.
Canadian North had cancelled its service connecting the largest communities in Nunavut and Nunavik approximately two years ago because the COVID-19 regulations did not make travel feasible.
That flight was dependent on staff from Montreal, but the Iqaluit airport could not replicate the infrastructure required for the COVID-19 testing being done in Montreal, said Andrew Pope, Canadian North’s vice president of customer and commercial relations.
But with regulations recently eased in both jurisdictions, the direct flight has become viable again.
“It’s yet another sign of a return to normalcy, which is obviously very exciting,” Pope said in an interview last week about about resumption of the airline’s direct service.
Part of the reason the return is exciting is the opportunity to re-establish business and family travel, he added.
Canadian North has heard that travel between the two regions of Inuit Nunangat has been less likely to happen because, without a direct flight, travel is more time-consuming and expensive.
“We expect that some of those folks that have not been able to make those trips over the last two years will now look to take advantage of it,” Pope said.
But another reason to return this flight is to get back air traffic that was lost due to the pandemic.
Over the last two years, Canadian North’s traffic volume has been between 30 and 50 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels, Pope said.
But he added that traffic has started to increase over the past couple months as restrictions were eased.
Re-establishing the Iqaluit-Kuujjuaq service will not be the piece that restores all of the company’s traffic, but it is a positive step and rebuilds Canadian North’s network, Pope said.
“Every bit helps.”
While pandemic measures may be easing from governments, COVID-19 has not. Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam confirmed on April 12 that Canada is in a sixth wave due to Omicron subvariants, with just under 200,000 active COVID-19 cases in the country.
With travel restrictions already eased, Pope said he is still feeling optimistic about his company re-introducing flights.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe the [flights would be viable],” Pope said.
In Kuujjuaq, on April 14, the plane coming from Iqaluit touched down at approximately 4:15 p.m.
After a quick walk from the plane passengers are greeted with hugs and well-wishes from people who have been waiting for them in the airport.