Issue: 2017-02-01, PHOTO: courtesy of Air North
Photo by: Simon Blakesley
I was writing a story about the Tatshenshini River for a magazine, and had just finished a 10-day rafting trip that left us at Dry Bay, Alaska, at the Pacific Ocean... the very definition of “the middle of nowhere.”
The Nahanni River Adventure guides were being coy about how we would return to civilization. Right on cue, a Hawker Siddeley turboprop airplane came thundering through the forest, just beyond our clearing, on an impossibly short and narrow runway.
We stowed our gear and settled into the almost-foreign comfort of the upholstered seats. We were tired, we looked bad and smelled worse, but the Air North flight attendants took our drink orders, brought us snacks and treated us like royalty.
There. That’s my Air North story.
It seems when Yukoners tell friends they have been Outside, one of the first questions is, “Did you fly Air North?” If so, an Air North story is presented for all to hear.
Air North is celebrating its 40th Anniversary in February. It is the perfect opportunity to explore the importance of these many stories and how an airline, in an industry that needs to efficiently corral passengers from gate to plane to gate, can gather so many good ones.
Like this one from Environment Yukon:
An injured eagle was brought into the Environment Office in Dawson. In an animal crate fit for a large dog, the Air North employees kept the eagle outside, covered in a blanket. Employees even went so far as to move the crate away from the noise and people at the airport’s main building.
Upon arrival in Whitehorse, Air North once again exceeded expectations by unloading the eagle at another gate, away from the baggage unloading and hubbub of the terminal, to maintain the quiet and calm.
These employees went beyond their job expectations to keep the bird in the calmest environment possible. Thank you for hiring such empathetic, thoughtful employees. Thank you for giving your employees the space to be able to work with such care.
Joe Sparling, the co-founder and president of Air North, says he hears many of these stories through the comment cards.
“The one that catches my eye over and over is, ‘It feels like you are home before you get home.’”
Sitting in his office, at a desk his father used before him, he says, “I thought about that a while and, if you wander into any departure lounge other than ours, you see people staring straight ahead or reading. Nobody is talking to anybody.
“You go into an Air North departure lounge and you will see quite a different picture: people exchanging stories of where they have been.
“When people end up in our departure lounge after being away for a while, and see people they know (even our flight crew and check-in crew), they feel like they are almost home.
“When you look at our 250 employees, almost every one of our customers will know somebody.
“We told our service providers that they will know a certain proportion of people and you should interact with them the same way you would at the grocery store and greet them by name; for passengers you don’t know, polite professionalism is what we want.”
There is one family of four in Vancouver that got a good dose of this polite professionalism. It was from the Reservations Department:
We booked our usual trip to Whitehorse to spend Christmas with my parents. In the middle of December, I had to move my ticket forward by four days to fly up and look after my father who had been ill. The rest of my family flew up on the 23rd and within two hours, one of my children hit his hand on a frozen branch while sledding. A surgeon wanted to see him in Vancouver before our Dec. 28 return home. That meant rebooking two of our four return tickets. Through all of my rebookings, the Air North agents were extremely helpful and even looked for ways to minimize their profit during a very stressful time for my family.
Servicing customers well is certainly a key to Air North’s success. But so are practical schedules that get people to and from places they need to be.
Sparling’s efforts began with determining how to serve the various governments in the Yukon. They wanted new gateways, not just duplicating existing services.
“We combined Calgary and Edmonton,” he says today. “It got their attention.
“But in the first few months, we noticed we weren’t getting any government business. So, we went down to the Purchasing Department and the guys said they need daily service to Vancouver for this to work.
“So, the lesson here is don’t listen to the politicians, listen to the people who actually spend the money.”
Then there is the task of raising capital. One of Air North’s directors came across the Yukon Government’s Yukon Small Business and Investment Tax Credit Program.
“I had a stack of prospectuses and thought if anybody wandered by and wanted to discuss buying a share I could speak with them,” says Sparling.
“I was absolutely amazed at the level of interest from local investors.
“I had lineups of people wanting to buy shares; and it wasn’t the wealthy people who had investment money to burn, it was pretty ordinary people who were investing money that was pretty important to them.
“I heard over and over people say they’ve been paying too much for air service and they want to see this product offered locally.
“They didn’t want to earn 10 per cent on investment; it was more about the quality of life.”
These are the stories that are told. Seldom are the stories about Sparling’s flying skills; often it is about the food.
For instance, this couple in their 60s were surprised at how well they ate:
We cannot remember when we were served a FREE meal and drinks on board an aircraft for a domestic flight. Even the one-hour flight from Whitehorse to Dawson we were served a very wonderful turkey sandwich. Oh, and that piece of cake served on the Vancouver flight was out of this world!!
Then there are all of the stories around the warm cookies served from the Air North ovens onboard.
“I don’t know who actually pitched the idea,” says Sparling with a chuckle. “But I felt from the outset that was the way to go.
“The cheese cakes were popular, but I personally like the chocolate chip cookies.
“And I like the idea of the aroma it puts in the cabin.”