October 5, 2022
Flying to the Arctic in Post-pandemic Times
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Flying to the Arctic in Post-pandemic Times

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DALLAS – How do you get to the Arctic, what airlines will get you there, and how have the current air travel woes affected these northern operations?

In the ‘Summer of chaos’, flying has become more of a lottery than a reliable mode of transportation due to lengthy wait times, canceled connections, lost luggage, delays, and expensive ticket rates. With major carriers axing flights across the board due to staffing shortages, this is certainly not how the airlines and travelers had envisioned the end of the pandemic.

Alas, flying to Svalbard, Greenland, and Nunavut demonstrates that the Arctic regions have not been exempt from the aforementioned issues that have recently plagued air travel.

As Dr. Michael Wenger points out in his report a polarjournal.com, “This is because due to the current geopolitical situation, where fuel has become a weapon of trade, the few airlines are suffering from fuel shortages and massively increased prices.”

We take a look a the most common routes to get to the Arctic and talk about an airline and an airport that have both been hit by the issues affecting post-pandemic commercial aviation.

Passengers disembarking a SAS Scandinavian Airlines (SK) Boeing 737-800 at LYR. Photo: By Graham – originally posted to Flickr as DSCF7170, CC BY-SA 2.0

Flying North

Canada, the second-largest nation on earth, relies heavily on aircraft for long-distance travel. The flying machines are crucial, especially for the Arctic north, which lacks adequate infrastructure. This is due to the fact that they transport supplies and people quickly from southern urban areas back to the north.

In Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, or Yukon, almost everything is done by plane or at least helicopter, whether it’s for work, school, or simply to visit family and friends or go on vacation. True, the shipping lanes serve as a vital supply route for the hamlets, the majority of which are situated along the coast.

Airlines, however, offer speedier supply because journeys take longer. If you live in the north cap of the Earth, this reliance on aviation is a community’s Achilles heel.

In the absence of regularly scheduled flights, distant Inuit villages and logistical hubs in the Canadian Artic are reached via charter flights from gateway towns like Ottawa, Toronto, and Edmonton.

The longest and least populated coastline in the entire Arctic is found in the Russian Arctic. Once you get there, visitor infrastructure is at best primitive and access is pricey and limited.

Canadian North C-GPNL Boeing 737-300 (Celebrity Cruises Livery). Photo: Liam Funnell/Airways

Northbound Airline

A few days ago, Canadian North (5T), the largest airline connecting the Northwest Territories and Nunavut with major southern cities, announced that it was ending the new service between Toronto and Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, now rather than at the end of September due to aircraft and staff shortages elsewhere.

Canadian North had to reduce both the number of flights and seats from Iqaluit to four northern settlements. Unexpected stopovers have to be made by certain flights. Fuel shortages at the four locations, according to Canadian North, are to blame according to Wenger.

An airline statement said that the gasoline provider did not have enough fuel to deliver to the locations on schedule. In order to restart regular services, it hopes to replenish fuel at the airfields in the upcoming weeks. However, as evidenced by comments on social media, the measures were occasionally met with vehement opposition from the populace. The airline’s pricing strategy and lack of government assistance were attacked in addition to the canceled flights.

The national airline of Greenland, Air Greenland, is dealing with a comparable issue. Due to problems in the supply chain, the fuel provider in charge of supplying a certain type of aviation fuel to the international airport in Kangerlussuaq is unable to fulfill its commitment.

When more fuel will likely become available again is not yet known. Until then, the issue must be resolved by having planes land in different areas and refuel as much as they can. In contrast to Canada, authorities have instructed the airline not to remove any seats or cargo in order to refuel the aircraft. This will likely hike up the ticket prices, warns Wenger.

Surprisingly remote, the only ways to reach Greenland are by plane via Denmark (4 hours) or Iceland (3 hrs). The most significant route, with one flight each day both ways is Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq. There aren’t any direct flights from North America at the moment.

Svalbard Airport, Longyear. Photo: Alexey Reznichenko , CC BY-SA 3.0

Northern Airport

Svalbard (Spitsbergen), Norway, is one of the most accessible parts of the High Arctic, and the least expensive to get to. Svalbard Airport (LYR) is the main airport. It is 5 km northwest of Longyearbyen on the west coast and is the northernmost airport in the world with scheduled public flights.

Daily scheduled flights that take around 3 hours to complete from Oslo, Norway, to Longyearbyen are available. Even though they are brief, some flights can be at inconvenient times, necessitating an overnight stay in Oslo.

After the archipelago went nearly two years without any visitors, Svalbard could actually rejoice this summer. In July alone, there were about 22,000 visitors to Longyearbyen, a 168% increase from the same month last year.

The airport manager told the media that there were twice as many charter flights now as there were before the outbreak. Particularly to blame for this was the SAS pilots’ strike, which prevented any flights to or from Longyearbyen for several weeks. Charter flights were used to get the tens of thousands of cruise passengers to Longyearbyen.

But that also meant that the airport workers would be under much more pressure. Additionally, Longyearbyen had a shortage of staff, largely due to the lack of housing options for the men and women who worked seasonally.

Dr. Michael Wenger was told firsthand that the lack of staff frequently resulted in serious issues for travelers with their luggage, some of which did not arrive and in other instances even went lost for weeks. According to the local daily Svalbardposten, in another instance, the airline left all of the passengers’ bags behind so that it could convey food for the ship instead.

Let’s hope the summer of chaos does not melt the impetus of those who wish to travel to the Arctic.

Featured image: Canadian North C-GCNO Boeing 737-36N. Photo: Liam Funnell/Airways

Chief Online Editor
Chief Online Editor at Airways Magazine, AVSEC interpreter and visual artist; grammar geek, an avid fan of aviation, motorcycles, sci-fi literature, and film.

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