Canadian North, government criticized for new baggage fees – Eye on the Arctic


An archive photo of a Canadian North aircraft. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
A archival photo of a Canadian North aircraft in Kuujjuaq, Quebec. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

The cost of a £51 bag has now tripled – and has risen 500% since April 2023

Canadian North and the federal government are facing criticism over sweeping changes to the airline's baggage fees, which will come into effect for tickets booked from Wednesday.

Two weeks ago, the airline announced sweeping changes and cost increases. While passengers will continue to receive their first bag free, the cost of a second bag has increased by 50 percent on the lowest ticket price, and the cost of an excess bag (anything over 51 pounds) has tripled on all fare types.

“Because we rely so heavily on airlines for transportation and cargo most of the year, it has a staggering impact on the cost of living,” said former Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson.

“It is known that people always [maximize] their baggage allowance. And so it is a punishment to meet people who are bringing essential goods that they cannot otherwise get in the north when they arrive from the south of Canada. It is really a punishment.”

A Canadian North aircraft on the runway in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

Iqaluit resident Nicole Jackson shared Patterson's concerns. She said while the changes wouldn't affect her as much, people from smaller communities would be hit hard when bringing goods up from the capital city – especially after Canada Post closed a legal loophole last month that many communities exploited to gain access to Amazon's free shipping.

“This has a big impact on them when they go on trips and can bring home some of the things they need,” Jackson said.

“Having to pay this extra baggage fee is tough. People just can't afford it.”

Patterson: The government is to blame

This appears to be the second time Canadian North has raised baggage prices since merging with First Air in 2019 – based on a CBC News analysis using archived web pages from the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library. The last time the airline raised its baggage prices was on May 1, 2023.

The $86.25 fee for a second bag represents a 114.29 percent increase since April 2023, and the $172.50 it costs for a 51-pound bag represents a 500 percent increase since then.

The changes also mean that customers can check in a maximum of three pieces of luggage at the counter. All other pieces of luggage must be carried as cargo.

The second and third pieces of baggage will also be carried in standby mode and sent to another flight as soon as space becomes available when the aircraft is at full capacity, the airline explained in an updated baggage policy on its website.

“This was entirely predictable and the blame for this lies primarily with the federal government,” said Patterson, referring to the approval of the Canadian transport company Transport Canada for revised terms for the merger with First Air. Patterson described the approval at the time as “completely shocking.”

“Conditions have been created to protect consumers from this kind of predatory monopoly.”

Former Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson, here in Iqaluit in April 2023. Patterson says the merger with First Air in 2019 and the subsequent change in the terms of the merger created an “exploitative situation.”

The new terms allowed Canadian North to increase passenger and freight rates by up to 25 percent per year. under the current merger conditions Fares were fixed for a period of seven years, exceeding operating costs.

In addition, the airline was able to generate a profit of ten percent and offset previous losses.

Documents obtained by CBC News through the Access to Information Act show that those losses at the time amounted to $32.2 million.

However, incidental fees, including baggage fees, were never covered by the merger terms, according to a statement from Transport Canada. The Canadian federal government declined CBC's requests for an interview on the subject.

“From the airlines' perspective, these types of surcharges are a very, very important source of revenue for them,” says Gabor Lukacs, a Halifax-based passenger rights lawyer.

“Ultimately, it's not illegal per se. They can charge as much as they want.”

According to the Privy Council order formalising the new agreement at the time, Canadian North stated that the company “could not maintain service in light of ongoing losses and that a complete cessation of services was likely to occur in the near future”.

“The airline is taking advantage of the opportunity to increase revenue from its largest customer base in Nunavut. And we have no say or consultation in this exploitative situation created by the federal government,” Patterson said.

How the Canadian North is doing: an analysis

Canadian North refused to answer questions in an interview and instead sent a written statement.

“This change is a direct response to customer requests. We place the highest priority on safety, efficiency and passenger comfort and our goal is to properly measure the amount of checked baggage in relation to our actual aircraft capacity,” wrote spokesman Trevor Wilde in response to CBC's interview request.

It is not clear what exactly customers were requesting, but Wilde noted that the changes will help ensure customers and their luggage arrive together.

“Similar changes have recently been implemented by most, if not all, other airlines in Canada. They reflect a collective response to the changing landscape of air travel and passenger needs,” Wilde continued.

In concluding his statement, Wilde called on CBC News to investigate these changes and report the results.

A Canadian North warning label stuck on a 151-litre container. As of April 2023, the cost of a 75-pound container like this one has increased 50 per cent to $172.50. Oversized luggage over 158 centimetres now costs $230, which was previously free. If a checked bag is both overweight and oversized, only one of the fees applies, whichever is less. (Nick Murray/CBC News)

CBC News has analyzed baggage fees charged by most of Canada's major domestic airlines, as well as other northern operators.

The analysis found that while Canadian North was among the few airlines that offered a free first checked bag for its lowest ticket price, its additional fees were the highest among the airlines studied. The analysis did not examine comparisons of the cost of a plane ticket between airlines.

CBC also analyzed trends in airline baggage fees since 2019 and found that, in general, there were no significant changes and baggage costs were lowest on the airlines surveyed.

In a statement to CBC News, Air Canada said it had not increased baggage fees since 2018. WestJet's increases in February 2024 were minimal.

The only exceptions are Porter, which has increased the cost of the first bag by 45 percent since 2022, and Calm Air, which in 2020 offered two or three checked bags free, depending on the route.

“A fine balance”

Nunavut Transport Minister David Akeeagok said the airline had informed the territorial government of the announcement the day before.

Nunavut Transport Minister David Akeeagok said the government did not oppose the changes when Canadian North informed him of them before announcing the changes. (Beth Brown/CBC)

While Akeeagok acknowledged that the changes will eliminate the baggage allowances Nunavummiut is used to, he said the airline is struggling with weight and balance issues because people are checking so many bags.

“This is a good compromise that Canadian North has found and I think this has been in the making for years. But now it's here and it's a reality because you either throw away your luggage or you throw away your passengers,” Akeeagok said, adding that he had not opposed the changes before they were announced.

“These are the critical operational decisions that Canadian North must make. And raising fees is one way [people from] carry even more baggage around with you.”

Akeeagok said the government's medical travel contract still allows two pieces of checked baggage free of charge.

Related stories from the North:

Canada: New flight from Iqaluit to Montreal to start this summer, CBC News

Finland: Finnair connects Helsinki and Ivalo with Kirkenes, The Independent Barents Observer

Norway: Air France launches flights to three destinations north of the Arctic CircleThe independent Barents Observer