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Ekati switches airlines

WestJet and aboriginal partnership to provide multimillion-dollar passenger movements

Thandiwe Vela

Northern News Services

Published Wednesday, March 7, 2012

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE

BHP Billiton has awarded the multi-million dollar airline contract to and from Ekati Diamond Mine--held by Canadian North since 1998--to WestJet and a partnership between Air Tindi and two aboriginal corporations.

Effective April 1, WestJet will provide passenger flights between Edmonton and Yellowknife for Ekati, with passenger flights between Yellowknife and the Ekati Diamond Mine provided by Discovery Air Inc. subsidiary Air Tindi, along with Tlicho Investment Corp. company Tli Cho Air and Lutsel K'e economic development arm Denesoline Corp.

"We are absolutely thrilled to be working with Air Tindi and Tli Cho Air on the passenger movement between Yellowknife and Ekati Diamond Mine," BHP spokesperson Alex Legaree said, adding the contract will help Air Tindi and Tli Cho Air build capacity in the North.

The contract is valued at $16-million dollars over four years.

Yellowknife-based airline carrier Canadian North has been providing both legs of passenger travel for Ekati since 1998, and the change in contractors came about as the current contract was expiring.

A request for proposals went out to multiple airlines across the North and elsewhere, Legaree said, as part of BHP's "normal, open, transparent" process, and the proposals from WestJet and the Air Tindi partnership came out on top.

The selection of WestJet, despite Ekati's record of using Northern airline carriers since the discovery of diamonds in 1991, is due to unspecified changes in the flying requirements in the latest request for proposals.

Canadian North president Tracy Medve said the company's aircraft availability was not able to accommodate some of Ekati's new flying requirements.

"We did our best to accommodate the client's needs within what we had available in our fleet, and obviously that wasn't aligned with what Ekati's requirements were so we weren't successful," Medve told Yellowknifer. "We've enjoyed doing business with Ekati and I think it was a good relationship. We just are sorry to see that they're not a customer for us anymore on the charter side, but we understand."

While WestJet aircraft cannot fly to Ekati because they are not equipped to land on Ekati's gravel runway, BHP was impressed by the flexibility of Air Tindi's fleet of de Havilland Dash 7 aircrafts, said John Curran, marketing manager for Air Tindi parent company Discovery Air Inc.

Air Tindi has purchased a fourth Dash 7 to respond to the increased demand from Ekati.

Legaree would not disclose the value of WestJet's contract with BHP, providing flights from Edmonton on Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings, and return flights on Mondays and Thursdays from Yellowknife.

The Air Tindi partnership with Tli Cho Air and Denesoline Corp. also recently won a five-year, $15-million passenger flight contract with Diavik Diamond Mines Inc., transporting Diavik workers and contractors to and from Northern communities, as well as cargo and combination flights between Yellowknife and the mine, located about 300 km northeast of the city.

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