Manitoba·CBC Investigates

'Exceedingly poor customer service' prompts northern First Nations to seek out airline competition

The chiefs who represent 30 northern First Nations are considering ending Perimeter Aviation’s near-monopoly of their air service in light of an “exceedingly poor level of customer service” from the airline.

MKO mulling end to Perimeter Airlines monopoly in Northern Manitoba

A Perimeter Aviation plane is loaded with food and supplies. Delays and cancelled flights have sparked a call for greater competition in northern Manitoba. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

The chiefs who represent 30 northern First Nations are considering ending Perimeter Aviation's near-monopoly of their air service in light of an "exceedingly poor level of customer service" from the airline.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak issued a statement Thursday evening outlining discussions held during its recent annual general assembly to explore partnering further with First Nation-owned air services such as Missinippi Airways, which is owned by the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation.

"The significant inconvenience experienced by passengers and lack of detailed timely information provided to MKO and the MKO First Nations raised questions about the commitments of MKO and the MKO First Nations to exclusively support Perimeter Aviation and Calm Air," read part of the statement, pointing to the service disruptions that occurred late last year.

Last December, Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson called for an apology from the airline after numerous delayed flights resulted in more than 100 people in one northern community missing medical appointments or having them cancelled because of delays.

There were 67 more missed appointmentsIn in the same community in the first nine days of December, she told CBC News.

The company attributed the backlog to "weather cancellations" and a poorly timed decision to take advantage of the weather delays to undertake routine inspections.

Carlos Castillo, the company's vice-president of commercial services, told CBC News last week the inspections took longer than anticipated.

"With the benefit of hindsight, we should have anticipated the need for additional capacity and brought it in sooner than we did," he said in a prepared statement. "However and as a result, we committed to permanently increasing our capacity and have since done just that by adding two large aircraft."

MKO mulling end to Perimeter Airlines monopoly in Northern Manitoba

6 years ago
Duration 2:25
Featured VideoThe chiefs who represent 30 northern First Nations are considering ending Perimeter Aviation’s near-monopoly of their air service in light of an “exceedingly poor level of customer service” from the airline.
The release says MKO is looking to develop a draft framework air services agreement for use between other air services providers who wish to operate in the region, as well as for use with Calm Air and Perimeter, both owned by Exchange Income Corporation.

The statement noted delegates at the assembly expressed "concern and dissatisfaction" with the continuing delays in passenger, cargo and other service issues with Perimeter.

Some agreements expiring soon

The MKO chiefs have a plan to reconvene at an as-yet undetermined time, but on an "urgent basis,' to discuss their options, including the expansion of First Nation-owned air services or air services provided in partnership with First Nations.

Oxford House resident Wayne Colon says he welcomes competition after a spate of bad experiences with Perimeter.

North Wilson said the majority of MKO First Nations fall under the exclusive agreement it has with Perimeter, which expires in August. Ideally, she said she would like to see MKO partner with Missinippi Airways to take over the flights.

Her objective is to open up the skies for greater competition to allow for Indigenous-owned airlines to take flight in the area. She argues increased competition will create better service and lower prices.

"MKO has enough business that they can run their own airline and sustain itself," she said.

When asked whether there was a possibility of re-signing an agreement with Perimeter, North Wilson said the MKO's directive has been focused on looking for an Indigenous-owned option.

"It's not necessarily to get rid of certain airlines, but we see the opportunity for MKO to own their own airline," she said.

It's unclear what financial impact this would have on the Exchange Income Corp. and its subsidiary, Perimeter. According to its most recent quarterly report, it has multi-year partnership agreements with 85 per cent of the Manitoba communities it services. 

North Wilson couldn't say how much flows annually from MKO communities to Perimeter, but said a study in Saskatchewan estimated roughly $50 million annually is spent on aviation travel in northern Saskatchewan. 

She estimates it would be a similar figure in northern Manitoba.

Arlen Dumas, the chief of Mathias Colomb who was recently elected grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said Missinippi, with 30 years experience under its belt, is ready to expand .

"The community wants proper and fair service," Dumas told CBC News. "They want tangible solutions to deal with the sporadic service [by Perimeter]."

'They do whatever they want'

Wayne Colon has experienced those service issues first-hand.

The near-monopoly of Perimeter Aviation in northern Manitoba First Nations may be ending.
"It's gone down quite a bit from the way it used to service our community," the Oxford House man said.  Colon estimates he flies Perimeter at least once a month.

"It's continuous delays, one after the other," he said. "There's always problems with overbooking."

Maintenance issues have also caused delays, according to Colon.

"In the last month and a half or so in Oxford House, the planes, they couldn't close the door — the back door where they put the bags and everything, all the freight — and they had to get another plane to come pick up the passengers," he said.

Colon says nearly a dozen passengers bound for Gods Lake Narrows on June 3 were forced to overnight in Oxford House.

"We have an old folks' home over there, a residence, and I guess they had a few spare rooms there, so some of the people stayed there, and other people stayed with people they knew from the community."

On June 6, Colon's mother and daughter were stranded in Thompson for hours.

"They were supposed to leave Thompson at 4:45 p.m. They were called and they were told the plane was delayed til 8:45 p.m. That's all they were told."  

But the plane didn't leave for hours and they didn't land in Oxford House until two in the morning.

Upset, Colon called the airline for answers but he said the woman who took his call told him his mother and daughter should be happy with the $100 vouchers they received for the delay.

"It's not about the voucher," Colon said.

He's frustrated there's no choice and believes that's leading to poor service.

"They do whatever they want. They change the airfare, change the schedules whenever they want. they don't come in the community and ask the people or at least inform them why they're increasing airfares or why it's a sudden change in the schedule."

Colon said he would welcome the idea of competition in the northern Manitoba skies because it might improve service.

Perimeter responds to complaints

CBC's I-Team contacted Perimeter prior to MKO's statement to ask about the concerns raised by Colon and its partnerships with northern First Nations.

Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, called for an apology last December after countless flight delays occurred in several communities. (Submitted by Sheila North)
Castillo said since 2006 the community partnership agreements have resulted in "millions of dollars" being put back into the communities they services through discounted bereavement charters, community benefit tickets, profit sharing and participation in economic development projects.

"As per these agreements, even though we are the airline of choice for each community, it is important to stress that, according to federal regulations, no airline or third party can be excluded from offering service or flying into any public airport in Canada," Castillo said in a prepared statement.

As for the two June flights Colon spoke of, the company confirmed there were delays and attributed them to a combination of maintenance issues and weather.

Castillo confirmed that on June 3, a flight scheduled to go to Gods Lake Narrows from Thompson was grounded during its planned stopover in Oxford House after a "maintenance issue" was detected, forcing passengers spent the night in the community.

Deteriorating weather prevented maintenance staff from reaching the airport, and attempts to send planes to pick up the passengers were thwarted by the weather, he said.

"A company representative in Oxford House provided passengers with meals, accommodations [as available in the community] and service vouchers, as per policy," he said.

The nine-hour delay for the June 6 flight experienced by Colon's family members was a result of a maintenance issue, Castillo confirmed.

When asked to comment about MKO's move toward opening up contracts to an Indigenous-owned airlines, the company declined to comment, stating it would deal directly with MKO.

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