In partnership with CIBC
Chris Avery remembers the day that everything changed. It was early March 2020 and Avery, president and CEO of Canadian North, a 100 per cent Inuit-owned airline that serves communities in the Northwest Territories, Nunavik and Nunavut, had been feverishly preparing a COVID-19 contingency plan with his team — though he hoped they wouldn’t have to use it.
“We were hopeful that given the unique geography we operate in and the essential nature of much of the travellers that we carried, that we would be minimally impacted,” he recalls. “But I specifically remember the day that we started to see the data showing rapid declines in bookings by 80 to 90 per cent. The sales director from the manufacturer of one of our aircrafts was literally in an Uber with her team on the way to meet with us. We quickly cancelled the meeting and activated our COVID response plan.”
The company acted just in time. By March 15, 2020, Canadian North’s passenger traffic had fallen by 90 per cent. Eventually, the company was able to make up some ground, but passenger traffic remains below half of pre-pandemic levels. The company sees community disruption as the most significant consequence of the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has disconnected us from many of our customers and the communities we serve because so many people have simply stopped flying,” says Andrew Pope, VP Customer and Commercial. “For those that are still travelling, we’ve had to limit interactions and provide a significantly modified level of service. It’s eerie to walk through empty airports and fly on mostly empty planes. Human connection is one of the most important things that travel enables and it wears on all of us to be deprived of it.”
Like many companies in air travel and across industries, the pandemic has rocked Canadian North’s business — but thanks to their own quick-thinking and support from their CIBC Relationship Manager and Best Managed coach, they’ve been able to survive, and even innovate.
Once they’d decided to implement their COVID response plan, Canadian North’s finance department turned its attention to saving money, which meant freezing all hiring, projects and capital investments, and reducing operating expenses. Crucially, changing their flight schedule led to immediate cash relief, since the company could save on fuel, landing fees, catering, sales related expenses and variable staffing. The executive team even took a reduced salary during the pandemic to help control expenses.
The next step was finding COVID relief funding so they could mitigate their losses and continue providing a base level of service. “Most of the communities we serve are not accessible by land, and only accessible by sea a couple of months a year, so our air services are their roads and highways for everything from food and medicine to essential suppliers to medical travel. We needed to be open for COVID tests to get in and out of the communities,” Avery explains. They were able to access funding from the governments of Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Quebec, as well as Transport Canada.
From there, Canadian North turned its attention to its workforce, which is between 18 and 20 per cent Indigenous and 13 per cent Inuit. The company applied to federal programs, including the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, but even before that benefit was available, Avery made sure employees who were impacted personally, or who had a family member who was impacted by COVID, received an emergency income supplement. They also ramped up communication, delivering weekly president’s messages from Avery and distributing a newsletter, dubbed #CNStrong. (It ran its course in the fall, but the company is looking to revive it for 2021.)
They worked to inject a bit of normalcy, too, making sure to mark the events that were important to employees, such as Pride Week, the Calgary Stampede, Nunavut Day and Christmas — even if it was only virtual. Employees didn’t just appreciate the company’s attempts; they also did their best to pay it forward. Their annual Christmas toy-drive had its most successful year ever, and the company was able to reach more children and families in northern communities than ever before.
It’s that commitment to community that really stuck with Canadian North’s CIBC Best Managed coach, Jeff Burns, Market Vice President, Commercial Banking. “The relationship that Canadian North has with the communities it serves truly makes it stand out,” he says. He adds that the company’s ability to practice change management helped, too. “They recently executed on a merger between First Air and Canadian North to strengthen the business and provide increased scale. This required tremendous commitment from their shareholders, Makivik Corporation and Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, as well as a complex integration plan from the entire management team.”
While the company’s team is looking forward to getting back to pre-pandemic passenger traffic, there are some aspects Avery wouldn’t mind keeping. “The pandemic has fostered innovation in the sense of the many changes in how we manage and plan the business, how we operate day-to-day to keep everyone safe and how we have been quick and nimble in adjusting our schedule and services,” he says. Those new flight plans are here to stay.