If I were to book a flight from here to Ottawa in about two weeks time, staying south for a month, airfare would cost me between $3642.00 and $5298.00 plus additional taxes and fees. In practical terms this means that for the four of us to go visit my family in Manitoba it would cost us roughly between $14,000.00 and $20,000 (plus) just to get to Ottawa! By comparison, a quick look online found me an airfare from Toronto to Sydney Australia for $1466 (plus) and that is without searching more than one site.
Airfare and transportation costs are finally getting some attention up here. I've heard that industry and government are having informal meetings on the topic this week. As well they should, for airfares impact absolutely every aspect of our lives up here. I wish I could tell you that I'm optimistic that change is in the wind, but I'm not. Personally as much as I believe that the Nunavut government has good intentions, I just don't believe that the political will or innovative thinking needed at the Federal Government, the government responsible for transportation issues. It should.
High airfares (and they are certainly the highest in Canada and if you know of higher comparable fares in the world I'd like to hear about them) impact every aspect of our life up here. Absolutely every aspect. Every Territorial Government program has less money too deliver their programs available because of the amount they spend on transportation. Every Federal Government program delivered up here has less money available from their budget because of the unreasonable amount of money they need to spend on transportation AND isolated post allowances, which are based on full fare airfares. If I was to still work for the RCMP, judging by what I saw on line for local airfares I would receive in the neighbourhood of $22,000.00 twice a year for isolated post travel.
I would dearly love to know what both governments spend annually on air travel. Just think of the program delivery that could happen, programs that are need if that travel was even halved. And it is not just government, but NGOs, Beneficiary organizations, and businesses. Personally I'm surprised there isn't more outrage up here.
If a store needs to bring up a repair person, that gets added in to the cost of my groceries (and before anyone jumps on me to say that those costs are spread out over the entire organization, say the Northwest Company, I know. But still, lower those costs all over Nunavut and the average goes down. So, in theory, should my grocery bills. Housing, or lack of it, is a major major issue up here. Yet still a lot of the carpenters, trades people or trainers come from down south. How many more housing units could be built once the travel budgets halved?
Medical Services? Discounting the costs of travel for Nurses, relief nurses, doctors, technicians, equipment specialists etc, Just think of the cost in patient travel. Then think of the medical service we could have if those costs were halved.
I understand that it is more expensive to operate up here (but a large part of that come from the transportation costs). The economics of scale enter into it. Places like Arctic Bay are staffed by the airlines for one or two flights a day, as opposed to many flights in southern cities. But I don't care what anyone says, it doesn't cost $1000 more per person to fly an ATR the 900 kilometres from Iqaluit to Arctic Bay (Nanisivik is the airport) than a 747 to Sydney Australia from Toronto.
So what to do?
First of all, we can't rely on the airline's good graces to rectify the problem. They've clearly demonstrated that they are going to act in the best interests of themselves. Fares are much cheaper where there are competing airlines (and roads), when competing airlines moved into some communities in the Baffin fares immediately dropped. I guess they must be losing money now. Large bonuses to airline executives, which they justify by pointing to the large profits they've made, clearly show that they aren't in this for the betterment of Nunavut. (and I know they aren't supposed to be).
I have heard talk that fares at 60% are now being offered to government employees and their families. Although any downward movement of fares for a large segment should be applauded, the cynic that is deeply entrenched within me notes that it is just to government workers at a time when the Territorial Government is paying greater interest to the industry. Of course they wouldn't be possibly thinking about currying favour or creating greater sympathies for the industry amongst the very people who might be going to do something about it.
So that leaves us, and Government. Now in a true free market (such as I understand it) we have power as consumers. We could choose alternate carriers, or alternate modes of transportation. Don't like the cost, fine don't use them. But that doesn't exist here. Air travel is essential in Nunavut. Communities are isolated, there is no road system, and the ocean over much of it is frozen for nine months of the year. In order for government to deliver their services and business to deliver their goods it must travel (mostly) by air. And where I live, there is no alternative. Here, the carrier is First Air, or a charter company. And that leaves us with a monopoly on an essential service. As a consumer I can choose not to travel, and I have. Well not really, the price has chosen for me. And it irks me, more than irks me really. My father turns 80 this year, and my mother, er I'd rather not say. But you get the point. I want to, and cannot, visit my family.
So Government. A lot of people have a problem with government "interference" in business. I don't. Personally I see government's biggest role as seeing that all of the country's citizens have access to the same standard of living. Not exactly, but my god it should be closer than it is. And we've already established that air travel is essential, and depriving Governments and everyone else of money to deliver their programs or live their lives. Far in excess of everyone else.
How should they go about it? The most common solution that you hear bandied about these days is subsidies. No. Let me reiterate that No. No No No No No. Subsidies are not going to solve the problem, and will only exasperate it. Government will spend more money, and programs will have less money for delivery. An individual like myself will benefit, I could travel to see relatives for less money. But I'll also lose, because there might be less money for my children's education and the like. And it will certainly not encourage the carrier from reducing fares. If they get their money regardless, they might even be encouraged to raise prices, forcing the Government to pump more money into subsidies. Of course with larger profits an air carrier can pump more money into the economy. At least in the economies where the company directors and executives live and vacation.
So that leaves a second option. Regulation of air fares. Air fares in this country used to be regulated but that was done away with years ago. But oh no, I can hear someone say, "deregulation helps free market economies. Governments need to stay out of the system for it to work". Yeah deregulation really helped in the financial industry south of the border. Now we're in a global economic meltdown. Yay for deregulation.
Tell them how much to charge per route. They'll fuss, and fight it. But at the end of the day, with the right political will in Ottawa (with plenty of encouragement and prodding from the GON) everyone will come out ahead. Tax dollars will go farther, sovereignty will be strengthened (because it's built on people's lives and encouraging peoples lives up here will strengthen Canada's claim to the Arctic), and eventually the economy up here will be more robust. Exploration and mining companies dollars will go farther also (I realize of course that much of their travel is by charter, but the general reduced costs of day to day life up here will benefit them as well).
The last option (and one to counter any threats of "Regulate us and we'll close down shop up there.") is for the Federal Government to operate their own carrier. Do it at a loss, and they'll still come out a head. Their Isolated Post Allowances will be sharply reduced, more social programs will be delivered, giving them more bang for their buck and perhaps less of a need to increase budgets for the delivery of their programs, and this part of the country might get a chance to return more to the rest of Canada instead of taking more. I know, the government operating a business, horrors. Look at it this way, its a relatively small business, and it would go a long way to making our lives up here, as valued as those in the south.