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Air Traffic Jam

Air Traffic Jam

Nothing brings the North together like a flight delay
By Herb Mathisen
Dec 17
2018
From the April/May 2018 Issue

It’s Monday morning in Grand Subarctic Station. You won’t find a busier place North of 60 right now than the main lobby of Yellowknife’s airport, which acts as both an arrivals and departures lounge for flights that splay out all over the Arctic. Inbound aircraft from Edmonton and Calgary are delayed this morning and have pushed back subsequent legs to Inuvik, to Iqaluit, to Cambridge Bay. For the next hour, three jets worth of passengers from all corners of the North mingle.

Lanky teens are returning home from a weekend basketball tournament in the capital. Entire families huddle together—elders sit stoic, children explore the far reaches of the room and a mother bounces her baby in her amauti. Camp workers in bulky orange coats and worn Carhartts catch some shut-eye during their monthly migration north.

“You want some tattoos?” a young teenaged girl on her way to Cambridge Bay calls out to friends. She’s the beneficiary of a visit from the founder of the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project, who has come out to say a quick hello to friends during the delay. The girl gives out tattoos. Temporary tattoos.

I’m off to Cambridge Bay for a trade show and I bump into a friend heading to Inuvik for the week on the court circuit. Another friend is flying to Iqaluit for work. A thrifty traveller, she’s got two steaks marinating in her carry-on bag for the two nights she’ll be there. (Her companion, spending four days, carries four steaks.)

We meet a woman who’s been trying to get home to Kugluktuk from Rankin Inlet since Wednesday. She spent all of yesterday in the air or on the tarmac, but after flying from Yellowknife to Kugaaruk (where it was a record -52C without the wind), the plane had a mechanical issue in Taloyoak and had to return to Yellowknife. She travelled thousands of kilometres to wind up in the exact same place.

“How are you?”

“Good,” she says as one prolonged sigh, having long ago been pushed past the point of impatience. “Except for all this.” She laughs, making it okay for us to laugh along with her.

Today, only Inuvik passengers have the dreaded “landing subject to weather” stamp on their boarding passes. This means there’s a chance the flight won’t make it in due to high winds or low ceilings. And it means you are also on your own when it comes to hotel charges and other incidentals caused by the disruption.

The Iqaluit flight is first to board and the lounge becomes less congested as passengers from the inbound flights—primarily aurora tourists from Asia—collect their hard-shelled luggage from the carousel and hop onto shuttles to town. Soon, we hear the jet take off—it will bank eastward to Rankin Inlet and then on to the Nunavut capital. Our Cambridge Bay flight will be last. The gate agent gets on the intercom. She regrets to inform us there won’t be any coffee or tea service this morning. The water lines on board, we learn later, are frozen. If we want a coffee, we should get one now. Some do.

Now we’re scurrying across the tarmac, into the screaming wind, toward the Boeing 737. Our flight attendants wear parkas and clunky workboots. (You get used to seeing this when you travel in the North.) I hear a deep rumble and look out my window to watch the jet to Inuvik lift off and disappear.

We de-ice and now I’m in the belly of the deep rumble. We’re airborne to Cambridge Bay. Just 150 years ago, this journey took an entire year of preparation and effort. Barges cut this time down to weeks and then it was days and less with the advent of flight, which made wholly impractical routes feasible. We will land in Cambridge Bay in two hours, mildly inconvenienced by the absence of coffee.

Meanwhile, a man pushes a mop across the floor of an empty airport lounge.