Changes urged after weather delay leaves passengers, including newborn, sleeping in Nunavut airport

A mother and newborn had an unexpected layover in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, last week, spending a night in the airport with more than a dozen other passengers.

No hotel rooms available for the night in Rankin Inlet, so passengers forced to sleep at airport

Passengers on a Calm Air flight from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Arviat, Nunavut, via Rankin Inlet were forced to spend the night in the Rankin Inlet terminal after a connecting flight had to be delayed due to weather. No hotel rooms in the community were available that night, the company's president said. (Walter Strong/CBC)

A mother and newborn had an unexpected layover in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, last week, spending a night in the airport with more than a dozen other passengers.

A Calm Air flight destined for Arviat had to be grounded due to poor weather in that community. It happened Sept. 19 and stranded about 15 passengers.

It was the second delay for the flight, which originated in Winnipeg.

Mechanical issues caused a late departure from Winnipeg, which meant the plane arrived later than scheduled in Rankin Inlet.

By the time passengers deplaned and boarded a smaller craft — the 737s Calm Air uses to fly out of Winnipeg are not able to land on Arviat's short, gravel landing strip — the weather made landing impossible, according to Calm Air president Gary Bell.

"We started to make phone calls and realized the hotels were all booked out," he said, adding the airline would have paid for hotel rooms, had any been available.

Blankets and pillows were distributed to make people as comfortable as possible for the night, given the circumstances, Bell said.

"We had our staff come in at about 5 a.m. and give our passengers taxi vouchers and meal vouchers so they could get into town and have breakfast and we got them into Arviat in the morning."

Passengers arrive at the Rankin Inlet airport terminal after deboarding. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Making the unexpected more bearable

John Main led a petition earlier this year to have Calm Air bring back direct flights between Arviat and Churchill, Man., according to a Nunatsiaq News story.

In an interview with CBC, he said this is the first time he's heard of passengers having to stay overnight in the Rankin Inlet airport terminal.

It underscores the importance of finding a solution to reduce the difficulties associated with air travel to remote communities in Nunavut, he said.

"There's some frustration both from myself and the people who were involved," Main said. "I know that it's a complicated business what Calm Air does … we're not trying to make enemies with them … we're trying to look for a better way."

Calm Air to build airport lounge 

Weather delays at Nunavut airports are not unusual and Bell said Calm Air has committed to building a reception facility near the Rankin Inlet terminal where passengers could sit out travel delays.

"It would have couches and a kitchen and place to relax," Bell said.

"It wouldn't be meant as an overnight facility, albeit if that situation occurred they could overnight there as well. It would be more comfortable than the metal benches in the terminal."

The plan is to begin work on that facility in 2018, once Calm Air works out a lease with the airport and are able to send building materials up on a barge.

Bell said Calm Air is also planning to introduce direct flights between Arviat and Winnipeg on smaller planes.

The flights would run during the first three weeks of December — the Christmas rush — as part of a trial run, he said.

"If those flights deem to be considered successful, we will consider to continue to have direct Winnipeg and Arviat service during the peak season next year — July and August — and the polar bear months."

With files from Jordan Konek