Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut November 24, 2016 - 7:00 am

We killed codeshare because it was despised, unnecessary: First Air boss

“No matter how you slice it or who you talked to, they simply didn’t like it”

STEVE DUCHARME
The heads of Nunavut's three codesharing airlines pose outside the legislative assembly Jan. 26. From left: First Air's Brock Friesen, Canadian North's Steve Hankirk, and Gary Bell of Calm Air. (PHOTO BY STEVE DUCHARME)
The heads of Nunavut's three codesharing airlines pose outside the legislative assembly Jan. 26. From left: First Air's Brock Friesen, Canadian North's Steve Hankirk, and Gary Bell of Calm Air. (PHOTO BY STEVE DUCHARME)

First Air’s president says his company’s unexpected announcement to drop its unpopular codeshare policy next May was based on one fairly obvious reason: nobody wanted it.

“No matter how you slice it or who you talked to, they simply didn’t like it,” First Air CEO and President Brock Friesen told Nunatsiaq News from Ottawa, Nov. 22.

For a company that operates a public service, Friesen said the message was loud and clear after receiving “virtually no positive emails” over the last year and a half.

“If people want Coca-Cola you don’t serve them Orange Crush,” Friesen explained.

Accusations of overbooked flights, poor scheduling and frequent cargo delays—among those critical medical travel and drug prescriptions—dogged First Air’s codeshare agreement with airline Canadian North since it was implemented in May 2015.

The popular uproar, echoed through all levels of government across the territory as well as Inuit organizations, prompted airline executives to passionately defend the practice before a full-caucus meeting of Nunavut’s legislative assembly last January.

“We can’t go back to the old days,” Friesen told Nunavut MLAs at that hearing, Jan. 26.

But it appears he’s changed his mind.

Friesen now says that First Air’s about-face is a “fairly major change,” but one “we had thought through very carefully.”

Codeshare was just one of several actions Friesen says First Air implemented to right the ship after “four very difficult years to the end of 2014.”

First Air’s fleet of aging planes needed to be trimmed down and refitted, beginning with the sale of its Hercules, 767 and 737-200s to make way for a new fleet of six ATR42-500 turboprop aircraft.

“We just had so many fleet types, so many pilots, so many spare parts,” Friesen said of First Air’s previous operational costs.

“For us we’re capable and we’re well positioned now to service the communities that we used to serve with similar types of service and levels of service and probably more seats because our new airplanes will be 100 per cent passenger.”

Friesen added that not every community would receive the service bump, on account of poor runways that can’t accommodate the new planes.

First Air’s cargo commitments will be shifted to its older planes, which will now be dedicated to that single function, thereby ending the use of combi—half cargo and half passenger—flights.

That will be coupled with “capacity purchase arrangements” First Air signed with Summit Air and Cargojet to separate commercial flying from its cargo portfolio.

When asked why First Air didn’t inform Nunavut’s assembly in January that the codeshare was only a temporary relief for the company while it restructured, Friesen answered there was no specific timetable to end the policy.

“Frankly, it was an experiment to do the codeshare,” he said.

So will the end of codeshare mean cheaper seats? Friesen said he “can’t promise what he can’t deliver.”

“I’m optimistic that we can hold the line on pricing in the North. We’re continuing to drive our costs down,” he said.

And the increase in seats, “no less than twice as many seats per flight,” Friesen added, may not translate to more Aeroplan options either.

“It’s safer to say there will be more seats offered for sale on all flights. Aeroplan seats are another issue. But there is more capacity and better capacity,” he said.

Earlier in November, as part of its investigation into alleged anti-competition behaviour, Canada’s Competition Bureau announced it had filed applications requesting First Air and Canadian North produce company records and other documents.

Friesen says the timing of the announcement had no impact on First Air’s decision to end codesharing, which was based on customer feedback.

“We’re not concerned about it. We’re confident that we understand the law and act within the competition laws,” he said.

“We continue to supply information and support the bureau in its investigation and that will continue until it’s over.”

As for First Air’s lucrative medical travel contract with the Government of Nunavut, which is set to expire this year, Friesen said the company will tender its bid when the RFP is issued.

In October 2015, Nunavut cabinet ministers threatened to shop around for “other businesses interested in the contract” when it came up for renewal.

“There’s no doubt we had the medical contract in mind when we did this [restructuring],” Friesen said.

“We’ll of course submit our bid. Clearly we have the best airplanes and our schedule is very competitive, if not the best.”

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