There are already signs of a chilling effect on travel to and from Yellowknife as a result of increases to airport fees, according to the president of a major northern airline.

Six months ago the territorial government introduced a new airport improvement fee and tripled the fees paid by airlines that use the airport. The government says the $10 million the fees will generate each year will be used to make the airport more attractive to travellers.

But Air North President Joe Sparling says lowering prices — not increasing them — is the way to attract air travellers. The airline flies travellers from Whitehorse to Ottawa, with a stop in between in Yellowknife.

"We're seeing travel grow in the Whitehorse-Ottawa market and stagnate in the markets in and out of Yellowknife," said Sparling. "I attribute that completely to the increase in airfares that we've had to pass on to customers."

Sparling said that since July, when the fees at the Yellowknife airport were increased, the number of passengers flying between Whitehorse and Ottawa increased by 8.3 per cent, while the number of passengers travelling between Yellowknife and Ottawa decreased by 3.7 per cent.

Sparling acknowledged that other factors, such as the economy, make it difficult to accurately gauge the impact of higher air travel prices.

Fees 95% higher than Whitehorse airport's

Whitehorse is the main entry point to the Yukon and one of the N.W.T.'s biggest rivals for tourists. According to the Northern Air Transport Association, fees at the Yellowknife airport are now 95 per cent higher than at the Whitehorse airport.

The Northwest Territories government has said the increases will add $29 to the cost of travelling south from Yellowknife and $19 for trips north.

The airlines lobbied hard against the fee increases. Part of their argument is that air travel is a necessity in the North and that airports should be treated similar to roads.

"Burdening air travellers with the full cost of operating the airport detracts from the quality of life, stifles the economy and, in general, makes the North a less desirable place to live," said Sparling. "I suspect you would have the same effect if you had a toll booth on the highway."

The executive director of the Northern Air Transport Association says airlines are worried that other northern capitals will follow Yellowknife's lead.

"We're concerned that this idea is going to spread over to Whitehorse, we're concerned it's going to spread to Iqaluit," said Glenn Priestley.

"Those are the major gateways into the North, but none of them are moving the amount of people that is going to make a large amount of dollars on a fee."

In a letter that will be published in the next edition of Air North's In-flight magazine, Sparling tells customers the airlines were successful in lobbying the Yukon government for assurances that fees at the Whitehorse airport will not be increased.