Polar flair: a number plate in Iqaluit, capital of the Canadian province of Nunavut / Simon Calder

The new airport taking shape at Iqaluit could open up Canada's north

Monday’s flying at Iqaluit airport did not begin well. Of the first seven departures from the landing strip 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, three were disrupted: delayed, diverted and cancelled.

Even though what passes for summer at these latitudes is soon to arrive, First Air, Canadian North and Calm Air are not enjoying the best of times. 

​Iqaluit, formerly known as Frobisher Bay, is the capital of Nunavut — the vast northern region of Canada that incorporates Baffin Island.

The main hub for Arctic Canada, Iqaluit has always endured extremes of weather, with temperatures sometimes falling to 40C below zero.

Snowstorms and fog are additional problems for the airport, which has a spectacular setting at the head of a long, deep inlet. 

The airlines that connect Iqaluit with southern Canada and the small Inuit communities of Baffin Island and beyond are accustomed to the capricious climate, as well as the problems of landing on gravel runways. Indeed, some of the oldest Boeing 737s still flying are deployed to and from Iqaluit, modified with special protection to minimise damage on take-off and landing at remote airstrips.

If northern Canada is a harsh environment for an airline, it’s equally tough being a passenger. Last summer, I was one of around 200 people delayed for 13 hours because of poor weather. The airport resembles an awkward array of yellow Portakabins rather than a conventional collection of passenger check-in areas and departure lounges. So we were corralled first in the town’s museum and later in a fleet of school buses, which eventually delivered us direct to the aircraft steps.

The school buses were pressed into service again in February, when the temperature was 30C below freezing. Because of its location, astride the air routes between Europe and the Pacific coast of North America, Iqaluit is occasionally the diversion airport for large passenger jets.

In February, a Swissair Boeing 777 from Zurich to Los Angeles made an emergency landing at Iqaluit due to an engine failure. The passengers had to remain on board while a rescue aircraft was flown from New York. 

The airport had only one set of steps capable of reaching the door of a wide-bodied jet. So when the second plane arrived, all the passengers and crew first had to be decanted into the buses before the steps were moved across to the replacement and they could re-board. 

Starting this coming winter, though, future travellers will be able to enjoy the best high-latitude airport experience outside Iceland — where Keflavik is both the well-appointed main airport for Reykjavik, and an increasingly busy mid-Atlantic hub.

Work is stepping up at Iqaluit so that an entirely new international terminal can be completed during the brief sub-Arctic summer. The new terminal is eight times bigger than the current terminal, and will allow international arrivals in significant numbers for the first time. 

Some workers have been brought in from elsewhere in North America, but the contractor, Bouygues Bâtiment International, is also training up people from the Inuit community. And the project may bring lasting benefits to the Canadian north by luring tourists. The flying time from the UK is under six hours, and well within the capabilities of the new Boeing 737 MAX.

Currently the only scheduled approach to Iqaluit is on a domestic flight from southern Canada. Fares are absurdly high. Ottawa to Iqaluit is a three-hour domestic flight, but a return trip currently costs around £1,300.

The shortest route from Heathrow to San Francisco goes directly overhead Iqaluit, which is the midway point on the trip. Many other links from the key Continental hubs of Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt pass close by. Until now, the town has usually been viewed only from the window of a westbound jet. But with a flying time of just three hours from Reykjavik, Iqaluit could find itself part of an expanding northern network — and the gateway to a part of Canada that few Canadians ever experience.

Indeed, were the local people discover that it is cheaper to travel to their national capital via Europe, it might bring about more realistic fares to and from a location that, for much of the year, is a good definition of the term “forlorn”.

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