Fight or flight: Fate of Yellowknife airport improvement fees decided this week

Fight or flight: Fate of Yellowknife airport improvement fees decided this week

MLAs in the Northwest Territories will debate and vote Wednesday on whether to launch Yellowknife airport improvement fees already opposed by airlines and the mining industry.

The fees, if approved, will add $19 for northbound and $29 to southbound tickets for flights originating from the Yellowknife airport, once expected price increases from airlines are factored in. The base improvement fees as proposed by the government are $10 and $20.

The N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines has followed airlines' footsteps in opposing the fees, saying they will raise the cost of doing business in the North.

Mining companies pay for the flights that take their employees from Yellowknife to the remote diamond mines northeast of Yellowknife, and the Department of Transportation has confirmed no industries will be exempt from the fees.

"It would increase costs to fly workers and freight to and from the northern mines and exploration projects," the chamber stated in a recent press release. "Its potential effects on industry are not insignificant and, if approved by the legislative assembly, could cost a mine as much as $500,000 a year."

The department wants to use the expected $8 million to $9 million in new revenue exclusively for expansions and improvements to the airport, including more parking, self-check-in kiosks and possibly direct flights to Vancouver.

'Tons of jobs'?

But some regular MLAs have questioned the department about the real benefits of the fees and how the earnings from the fees will be spent — and by whom. 

Kieron Testart, the MLA for Kam Lake, pressed Transportation Minister Wally Schumann to elaborate on his claim that the airport improvement plan will create more jobs at the facility.

"It has the potential of creating probably tons of more jobs. I couldn't give [you] the exact number," Schumann replied.

"I have tons of more questions," said Testart, "but I understand I only have one left."

Testart cited a CBC News investigation last week which found that airlines across Canada pocket up to seven per cent of airport fees as a form of commission.

"How does minister plan to ensure all proposed fees are invested in crucial airport infrastructure, as he has promised?" Testart asked.

"It is something that we are keeping a close eye on," responded Schumann. "As the member alluded, that is in the news today, and we will see what the outcome is from that."​

Department charts July launch

Shane Thompson, the MLA for Nahendeh, wanted to know why the airlines' cut wasn't mentioned publicly by the department before Testart brought up the investigation. 

"We've known about this all along that there's a fee charged by the airlines to implement this," said Schumann.

"It was probably our oversight that this part wasn't included in it."

The department had originally hoped to launch the fees in February, but that plan had to be scrapped when a committee of regular MLAs reviewing the plan said it needed more information from the department.

If the bill passes on Wednesday, the department then hopes to see the fees in place by July.

At least one MLA is sick of hearing about them.

"I have raised the plight of the Bathurst caribou herd in this house since the beginning of our term," said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly. "Probably almost as many times as the minister of transportation has talked about the Yellowknife airport."