Yellowknife-based airline Air Tindi, which serves several remote Northwest Territories communities, announced major layoffs and schedule reductions on Friday.
The cuts, said the airline's president, are a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis — which has ravaged the global aviation industry.
"It's an absolute crisis, obviously, for everybody right now," said Air Tindi President Chris Reynolds. "The economy and aviation [have] been hit very hard with all travel being essential-only for the most part."
He said the changes were necessary to ensure the airline survives the coronavirus pandemic.
Air Tindi, which is more than 30 years old, runs air ambulance, charter and cargo flights, as well as scenic tours. Its planes can be fitted with skis, floats and tundra tires, which allow them to fly into small communities and mining camps.
But since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent protection measures, there's been a dramatic drop in travel. It's left airlines large and small scrambling.
Reynolds said his airline has laid off or reassigned about 35 per cent of its staff, cut its fleet by 40 per cent, and shrunk its flight schedule by more than 50 per cent.
He said about 60 employees are affected by the staffing changes, and of those, about 45 are out of work. The scaled-back arrangement is expected to last until June 1, or later.
"It's obviously very hard. It's a really tight-knit community. It's family," said Reynolds. At the same time, he said, with major airlines around the world announcing layoffs, today's news didn't come as a surprise to his staff.
He said Air Tindi will focus now on flights to hard-to-reach locations, and on its medevac services — which are critically important in a time of pandemic.
The airline is currently flying the reduced winter schedule it follows while the winter roads are open, said Reynolds, but the plan is to shrink the schedule even more.
Communities will still get their cargo as well, said Reynolds.
"We're obviously mindful of the communities needing ... their groceries and all their goods available to them, which will still get flown [in]," he said. "We're not going to leave anybody stranded."
Brandon Coates, a pilot with Air Tindi, learned he was out of a job Friday morning. He said employees were told the layoffs were temporary.
"It's going to be tough for the next couple of months, but I understand why they had to do it," he said. "I know that [Air] Tindi wouldn't do it unless they really needed to. I think they really care."
Coates, who's from New Brunswick, has put more than five years into the airline. In the meantime, he isn't sure what he'll do.
He said his friends who are pilots at other airlines are going through the same thing.
N.W.T. gov't announces economic relief package
Also on Friday, the territorial government unveiled its economic response to COVID-19. It includes a $13.2-million economic relief package, increased funding for territorial income assistance, and low interest business loans, among other measures.
"Of course [the Department of] Infrastructure is going to be doing everything that we can to continue to ensure that flights are happening to the communities, and supporting businesses such as our regional and local airlines so that they can survive," Infrastructure Minister Katrina Nokleby told reporters.
"We know that they're a key, critical piece of our supply chain, so we will be doing everything in our power to ensure that they can stay open."