Problems with Rankin Inlet runway lights leave passengers in limbo for more than 21 hours

What was supposed to be a two-hour flight from Winnipeg to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, turned into a day of airport-hopping, leaving passengers hungry and exhausted.

Plane attempted to land in community twice before returning to Winnipeg airport

Issues with runway lights at the Rankin Inlet airport caused passengers on a Calm Air flight last week to undertake a 12-hour ordeal that included two failed landing attempts and, ultimately, a return to Winnipeg. (Walter Strong/CBC)

What was supposed to be a two-hour flight from Winnipeg to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, turned into a day of airport-hopping, leaving passengers hungry and exhausted.

Alice Simik boarded her flight to Rankin Inlet around 4 p.m. in Winnipeg last Thursday, but she arrived 21 hours later, after a number of things went wrong.

"It's tiring," she said. "If you would be travelling on the snowmobile for that long, I'm sure that your body would be very exhausted with barely any strength."

She said there were children and elders on the plane and passengers were barely able to sleep or eat.

Landing troubles

After takeoff from Winnipeg, the Calm Air flight, operated by First Air, was first diverted to Churchill, Man. because of a medical situation with one of the passengers. 

In Churchill, the crew learned the runway lights in Rankin Inlet were broken. Rankin Inlet airport workers laid out emergency runway lighting, and the 38 passengers and four crew members attempted to complete the journey after sunset.

Twice, the plane approached Rankin Inlet, and both times the plane had to return to the tarmac in Churchill.

Passengers eventually got off the plane in Winnipeg at 5 a.m. Two hours later, Simik and other passengers who were eager to get to Rankin Inlet were boarding again. This time they made it. They landed Friday afternoon.

The multiple legs between Winnipeg, Rankin Inlet and Churchill ultimately covered a total distance of about 3,800 kilometres. (Google Maps)

The incident was "regretful," according to Shawn Roy, vice-president of operations and general manager for Calm Air.

Simik said passengers received $200 in compensation for the delays.

Seasonal problems

Airport workers in Rankin Inlet were able to fix the runway lights by Sunday evening.

"This is a bad time of year for runway lighting because the cabling is all underground," said John Hawkins, assistant deputy minister for transportation with the Government of Nunavut.

Hawkins said this problem comes up every spring in Nunavut airports when ice thaws and refreezes in the lighting circuits underground.

Flare pots are used as emergency lighting, but "pilots make the call about whether they can land," said Hawkins. Approach lights at the airport have also been out of order for over a month.

Flare pots light the airport runway in Pangnirtung, Nunavut in 2015. The pots are used as emergency lighting when needed at Nunavut airports. (submitted by Seetee Kilabuk)

Airports across Nunavut are more susceptible to electrical problems because of extreme weather, and the government can expect the need for repairs in about one community per year.

"It can happen in Montreal, Calgary, or anywhere it freezes and thaws," said Hawkins. "Unfortunately it doesn't happen in a predictable place."