Air North at 40: How Yukon's homegrown airline took off, and stayed aloft

From single-plane charter service to scheduled cross-country jet service, Yukon's airline has survived and thrived in a competitive market.

'I think they tapped in to the local spirit in many ways,' says Yukon aviation historian

An Air North Douglas DC-3 CF-CUG flight over the Juneau icefields, early 1980s. (Air North)

Joe Sparling, the president of Air North, seemed as surprised as anybody to find himself celebrating his company's 40th birthday this past week.

"It's gone by fairly quickly," he said.

Sparling is not the kind of guy to sit back and reminisce, and reflect on his success — he's still too busy running the business, even piloting his own jets on regular passenger flights between Whitehorse and points north and south.

"We don't have a lot of fat in the operation — everybody works," he said. "The airline business is a very competitive business."

So competitive, Sparling says, that it threatened to ground his homegrown company at times. But Air North kept flying.

An undated photo of Cpt. Joe Sparling, Air North president, onboard an Air North Douglas DC-3 C-FIMA. (Air North)

"It was very challenging, when I think our main competitors were being very aggressive with us and fuel prices were high — those were some tough times," Sparling said.

"I'm proud of the fact that we've been able to show that we can actually compete with the largest carriers in the country."

Taking flight

Air North had, as the familiar story about start-ups goes, "humble beginnings" — just two guys (Joe Sparling and Tom Wood) with a single Cessna 206 offering charter services around Yukon, and flight training.

The business took flight and within a few years, Sparling and Wood had expanded their fleet of aircraft and began offering scheduled service in Yukon and to Alaska.

The seasonal charter service, Sparling said, just wasn't enough.

"You're busy in the summer, and there's nothing to do in the winter. And it was very, very difficult to have to lay people off every winter, and then hope that they'd be available the following summer."

The airline gradually added new routes over the years — to Fairbanks, Alaska, Dawson City and Old Crow in Yukon and Inuvik, N.W.T.

Company officials and flight attendants with Air North's first Boeing 737-200 C-FJLB, purchased in 2002. (Air North)

By 2002, Air North was ready to buy two Boeing 737 jets, thanks to an investment by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow. That's when the airline added regular flights to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, Alta., something Sparling had at one time thought was a "ridiculous" idea for his small company.

It doesn't seem so ridiculous now. 

Air North — now with hundreds of employees — even added a regular scheduled flight to Ottawa (via Yellowknife) a few years ago.

"The market has grown hugely," Sparling says. 

Cruising altitude

Bob Cameron, a retired pilot and author of Yukon Wings, a history of aviation in the territory, says Air North can take a good chunk of credit for building that market over the years.

An Air North flight in 1986. In-flight entertainment would include music (on cassette tape) from Yukoners Al Oster and Hank Karr. (Air North)

"I think they tapped in to the local spirit in many ways," Cameron said. "I think Air North was promoting the wonderful affordable convenience now of having outsiders have the privilege of coming to the Yukon."

"[Sparling]'s a pilot, he greets and meets the passengers, and how can you get more connected to your customer base than that?"

Sparling himself thinks competition has been key to building the market — a bigger factor, even, than Yukon's growing population. 

"It's simply price-stimulated growth," he said. "People are travelling more often, and more people are travelling."

He's not sure what the coming years will bring, but he knows Air North will stay true to its name.

"We certainly have no aspirations to be a trans-continental carrier, or take on routes in the south. All of our flying has a northern component to it.

"I think we have carved a bit of niche out of the market now. I think that probably the big guys know that we are here to stay."

An Air North Hawker Siddeley 748 landing at Prairie Creek, N.W.T., in 2002. (Air North)

With files from Sandi Coleman