Why flights between Newfoundland and Europe have Labrador Inuit shaking their heads

Two Inuit leaders in Labrador are calling on the Newfoundland and Labrador government to chip in for flights to their fly-in communities as the province becomes the latest to support leisure travel to and from international destinations.

Johannes Lampe, president of the Inuit Nunatsiavut government, and Barry Andersen, the AngajukKak — or mayor — of Makkovik, N.L., say the staggering cost of flights to their communities make the cost of groceries and essential goods out of reach for many.

In Nain, where Lampe lives, a pound of butter at the local store was nearly $10 in May; a two-litre jug of whole milk cost $9.50; a litre of coffee cream was $12.89; and a large pack of laundry detergent pods cost nearly $90.

If the province can support WestJet flights between St. John’s and Europe, it has “a responsibility” to improve air access to Indigenous communities in northern Labrador, and help make food and other basic needs more affordable, Lampe said in a recent interview.

“That responsibility must be taken seriously,” he said. “Labrador Inuit are in dire straits.”

The Inuit leaders were reacting to an announcement last month by Premier Andrew Furey, who said his government would support the St. John’s International Airport Authority in a deal with WestJet to provide direct flights between St. John’s and London, England, beginning in May 2024.

Premier Andrew Furey promised to support the St. John’s International Airport Authority in a deal announced last month. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

John Gradek, an aviation specialist and lecturer at McGill University, says Lampe is making “very valid comments.”

Provinces that provide financial backing for non-stop flights to international destinations walk a “fine line,” and they need to be clear about why they’re using taxpayers’ money to serve a highly specific portion of the population, he said in a recent interview.

Neither the province nor the St. John’s International Airport Authority will say what the agreement entails, nor how much money is involved, but the provincial Tourism Department said the funds come from a pot of $3.75 million, “to support the expansion and development of air access.” The more tickets are sold, the less the airport authority will have to pay out, the department said.

Gradek said the airport authority may have promised a minimum number of ticket sales, with government money filling the gap if the minimum isn’t met.

The Manitoba government also pitches in for WestJet flights between Winnipeg and two American cities: Los Angeles and Atlanta. Since August 2022, the province has contributed $9.8 million to fund supporting the routes, according to an emailed statement from the provincial government.

The fund was set up “to establish direct air service between Manitoba and international markets that offer significant economic opportunity,” the email said.

A snowy street with some houses on the right side and a mountain in the background.
Nain, Labrador, is the province’s northernmost community, and is only accessible by air during the winter months. (Hamlin Lampe)

Meanwhile, WestJet announced in November that it was once again making a profit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the first three quarters of this year outpacing earnings from 2019. When asked why WestJet needed public money, Andy Gibbons, the company’s vice-president of external affairs, said he could not comment on
specific arrangements.

“Communities often work with airlines to bring connectivity to attract investment opportunities and foster economic development,” Gibbons said in an emailed statement.

Return flights between St. John’s and London in May 2024 are going for as little as $602, according to the airline’s website.

Return flights between St. John’s and Nain, however, are about $2,500, according to the website for Air Borealis, which offers passenger and cargo flights to the six fly-in communities along Labrador’s northern coast.

Nain is the northernmost such community and the largest town in Nunatsiavut, with a population of about 1,200 people. Andersen lives in Makkovik, which is further south, but still only accessible by plane in the winter, or by ferry in the warmer months.

Just before Christmas, a regular-size turkey at the grocery store was $78 and a pound of ground meat was $11, he said. When food brought in during the summer months by ferry runs out and is replaced by flown-in goods in the winter, the price will rise further.

“Tea bags, sugar, the stuff you need for baking, it gets really, really, really expensive,” Andersen said in a recent interview.

He said he’s been asking the province to introduce a service like Quebec’s Regional Air Access Program, which allows air travel between smaller, remote regions of the province and larger provincial centres for $500 return, with some conditions. But so far, he feels the provincial government isn’t listening.

WATCH | In November, WestJet’s Andy Gibbons commented on the new St. John’s-Gatwick flight

London’s calling — and here’s how St. John’s wooed WestJet for a direct flight

WestJet’s Andy Gibbons says every mayor and premier are clamouring for a piece of the airline and competition for flights is cutthroat. Gibbons explains why a new direct flight from St. John’s to London’s Gatwick airport will stick — and why other routes aren’t a priority.

“I think with a small population, it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said.

The provincial Department of Labrador Affairs did not provide a comment or an interview.

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