Canadian North will no longer publish lowest return airfare, key for tax filing in North

An obscure number essential to claiming northern travel benefits just got harder to find, thanks to a merger between two of the North’s biggest airlines last summer.

Lowest return airfare required to claim northern travel benefits

A Canadian North plane at the airport in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut in October 2019. After its merger with First Air, the airline said it will no longer make its lowest return airfare to northern communities available to the public for tax purposes. (CambridgeBayWeather/Wikimedia [CC BY-SA 4.0])

Claiming northern travel benefits just got a bit harder, thanks to a merger between two of the North's biggest airlines last summer.

The lowest return airfare — an obscure number essential to claiming the benefits — is a dollar amount calculated by airlines based on the cost of a last-minute ticket from a northern community to the nearest city. It's used when filing taxes to claim a tax deduction for travel benefits paid by employers to many northern workers.

In the past, Canadian North made their lowest return airfare for all of its northern routes available to the public online. For northern residents from Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut to Inuvik, N.W.T., it made filing taxes a little less painful.

But no longer.

"We received the schedule from Canadian North last week," said Andy Wong, a tax consultant in Yellowknife, but "we were informed right off the bat that we couldn't release the schedule to the public or on social media."

Canadian North says the change is due to last summer's merger with First Air. While residents of communities serviced by Canadian North could find their lowest return airfare easily online, people who lived in communities serviced by First Air had to contact their airline directly.

Canadian North's expanded route map. The merged airline flies to the most communities of any airline servicing the North. (Canadian North)

"There is therefore no change to how we are approaching this for those used to this process," said a spokesperson for the merged airline.

The airline now says residents must email and wait 48 "business hours" — or six business days — for a response.

"This process ensures that we provide accurate information based on specific flight route," says the statement.

"We've stated 48 business hours as our target, this is something we've been able to accomplish in the past. We will continue to assess, if there is an increase on the volume we will look to do what we can to stay on target as possible."

Without airlines, lowest return airfare is not always obvious

Northerners are entitled to deduct the cost of their travel expenses from their taxes. It's a benefit meant to mitigate the high cost of travel in the North.

Residents are allowed to deduct the lowest of three amounts: the total travel benefit issued by their employer, their total cost of travel, or the lowest return airfare. Usually, it's the third.

But determining the value of that airfare is not always easy. Tickets purchased last-minute, at the time of travel, are far more expensive than those found through a standard search.

Technically, residents should be asking airlines for the last-minute price on their date of travel. But if that route is full, an airline may not be able to provide a price — and in any case, it's not likely to match up with the airline's internally calculated number.

"In practice … you're not going to get that number from anywhere," said Wong. "So now you're relying on the airline to calculate that number after the fact."

Some airlines — like Yukon's Air North and Nunavut's Calm Air — told Wong they'll still make the number public. But Canada's biggest carriers — Air Canada and WestJet — have never embraced the practice.

"They are really gracious," said Wong. "I understand that they're creating a lot of difficulties for everybody, themselves included, but nonetheless I am appreciative that they do … calculate these numbers."

Wong said, after the tax deadline madness dies down, he'll push for more transparency from Canadian North — and simpler rules from the Canadian Revenue Agency.

But for now, he says, it's the taxpayer's responsibility to find out the lowest return airfare — "no matter the complexity."



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