Servicing the North

Aklak Air

Aklak Air’s planes are adaptable to landing on almost any terrain with wheels, skis, tundra tires, or floats. This is why Aklak Air is unique – its aircraft and crew are fully prepared for the type of terrain and weather that one will find north of the 60th parallel.

Aklak Air was initially launched in 1977 when an Aboriginally owned company called the Inuvialuit Development Corporation saw the need for safe and reliable air travel in the area. The corporation not only succeeded in meeting that need, but also provided jobs to many members of the northern population; now, the company commonly known as Aklak Air is still fifty-one percent Aboriginally owned.

Today, the company is very similar to its roots in look and operation. The company still operates on a schedule in addition to offering charters throughout the area but, after a joint venture was agreed to in 1994 with Calgary based Kenn Borek Air LTD, the name has been changed to Aklak Inc. The new joint venture brought with it more than forty years of experience with the partner being responsible for bringing much of the required licensing, documents, crew, pilots and maintenance workers to the operation. Since the merger, there haven’t been many changes to the company, other than being able to call upon Kenn Borek LTD for extra aircraft and crew when needed. For example, with the boom in the oil and gas industry toward the end of the 1990s, the merger provided enough planes to meet the sudden demand.

The company offers flights on several different types of aircraft which include King Air 200s, Twin Otters and, on occasion, a turbine DC3. “On the scheduled service side, these aircraft will transport people, groceries, mail and various other freight, to and from each and every location that we service,” explains Ken Dalton, General Manager of Aklak Air. “The charter side is very similar regarding what we transport, but it is up to our clients on when they want to travel and the locations could be anywhere from a community with a defined airport or somewhere out in the middle of nowhere with a Twin Otter on tundra tires.”

Last year, Aklak Air also added a new Beech 1900D to its fleet, which has been well received by all who enjoy regularly scheduled flights. The new plane has helped to accommodate the increase in traffic that had been an issue in the past. The Beech 1900D is a larger aircraft that is capable of carrying much more cargo. “We have been very happy with the decision to add this to our fleet,” says Mr. Dalton.

The airline is located in Inuvik, Northwest Territories and offers a scheduled service to Paulatuk, Sachs Harbor, Tuktoyaktuk and Ulukhaktok, as well as a seasonal flight schedule to Fort McPherson. The company also offers a charter service that can go anywhere the wind blows in the western arctic. For a time, during an exploration boom between 1990 and 2000, Aklak temporarily served another airport in Cambridge Bay that had an operating schedule and a charter service. Aklak Air is also responsible for medevac service for the northern region of the Northwest Territories.

The airline has an administrative and customer service staff of eight with all other crew supplied by Kenn Borek Air Ltd. For any ground shipping, loading or unloading, partner transportation companies can be called upon. Outside groups are also contracted to service the flights within the communities served by Aklak.

Airlines that operate in the north all face similar challenges. They are restricted to using smaller propeller driven planes because jets are too heavy and need more runway to land and take off. The majority of the runways used are short and gravel, as it would be impossible to maintain asphalt or concrete in the harsh weather conditions. Charter flights, on the other hand, most often have no runway to land on at all at their destination.

Charter trips usually depend on the pilot being able to land in a field, open gravel bar, or any flat surface on the tundra. This kind of landing requires the plane to have special landing gear, such as the Twin Otter with tundra tires, as well as a highly skilled bush pilot to do the job. Not just any pilot is skilled enough to assess the ground for landing, or even skilled enough to land there.

The weather can be unpredictable, particularly around the coast where most of the communities are built. “It may be a nice clear day one minute; the next might have a fog bank moving in or, during the winter, a blizzard forming within minutes,” says Mr. Dalton. “Also, with communities located so far apart, alternate landing locations are not as abundant as they are in the rest of Canada.” If a storm breaks and the plane is in the air, there may not be a place to land for quite some time, leaving the safety of the passengers up to the skill of the pilot.

Remarkably, a storm that would shut down a Chicago airport would be but a small hassle for Aklak Air’s experienced pilots, because that’s everyday weather to them, and the equipment is fine-tuned to handle the climate. Even in extreme conditions, the planes must provide the utmost in reliability. Amazing, given the conditions, is the safety record that Aklak Air holds.

“Just being able to get essential supplies to communities and being able to carry out all other routine flights successfully and safely every day is a great achievement,” shares Mr. Dalton. “In November 2010, we experienced a hangar fire where we lost pretty much everything along with three aircraft. Through our partnership with KBAL, there were additional aircraft being positioned to Inuvik as the flames were still being extinguished and with exceptional staff and crew our service the next day carried on as normal.”

At the moment, Aklak Air is in the process of having a new hangar built which will free the company from having to lease hangar space.

The airline does face some new challenges in the form of the recent beginning of construction of an all season road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk which will surely cause the demand for air traffic, both passenger and cargo, to decline. How the resilient company adapts to these new challenges will determine its future. Every day seems to be a battle with the economy and the rising costs of fuel and ancillaries, but still Aklak Air bounds on. Providing air travel where there are no roads, Aklak Air literally saves lives. Every day there are medevac missions carefully carried out, rescuing people in bad weather and delivering much needed supplies to people who desperately need them. Aklak provides its customers with safe, reliable and cost effective air transportation service to remote locations.

August 21, 2017, 8:05 AM EDT

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