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Attention Passengers: Would You Eat Airline Food at Home?

This Indigenous-owned airline in Canada has passengers swooning over its cheesecake.

With its crispy brown base and the right amount of fruit and creaminess, the homemade cheesecakes made and served by Air North, a small Canadian airline headquartered in a community of just 40,000 people, are considered a little slice of heaven at 30,000 feet.

“I recall receiving comment cards asking which flights are the cheesecake on or if they could buy it anywhere,” says the airline’s longtime Red Seal chef Michael Bock. “We are also often asked when we will bring back certain dishes, such as our pot pies and seasonal products like our turkey dinners.”

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“It’s nothing like you’d expect on an airplane.”

In September 2018, the carrier, which runs passenger and cargo flights from its headquarters in Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon territory in the country’s remote northwest, decided to introduce the cheesecake to supermarkets. The creation, which comes in raspberry, chocolate, blueberry, mango, and haskap berry flavors, made its debut on the shelves of Wykes Your Independent Grocer stores. During the launch, flight attendants took over the shop’s PA to create a cabin-style atmosphere, and there was a cowling of a 747 with a freezer inside. A shop freezer door poster boasted that “Yukon’s own cheesecake is in sight.”

“(It’s) nothing like you’d expect on an airplane,” says Mark Wykes, the owner, and operator of Wykes Your Independent Grocer, of the meals. “It’s crazy to think that you would sell that many frozen cheesecakes or entrees. It’s just unbelievable.”

Debra Ryan, Air North’s strategic planning and alliances manager, claims that their food has been popular in stores because they’re “like a meal out, but (with) the convenience of preparing each dish in the comfort of your own home.” The carrier’s other dishes, including lobster mac n’ cheese, bison Sheppard’s pie, Thai chicken curry, meat lasagna, and sweet potato stew, were added to Wykes and other shops 18 months later. The reaction they’ve received has inspired Bock to come up with in-flight new menu ideas and cheesecake flavors.

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In 2020, after COVDI-19 hit Air North, which flies between Yukon and Canada’s northwest territories and British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, and runs charter flights across the country and Alaska, the airline unveiled a home delivery service. This meant they did not have to lay off their staff, and they could supply local fans with their food.

“With everybody being shuttered in and restaurants having to stop service, people couldn’t dine in,” says Ryan. The second installment of this service launched a few weeks ago.

It may be tiny, but Air North punches above its weight, with its First Nations community owning nearly half of the company. Its story began in 1977 when the company was launched by Canadian aviators Joe Sparling and Tom “Ace” Wood, with a tiny Cessna 206 only able to carry two people.

Then known as Air North Charter and Training, the airline aimed to offer charter flights for the booming mining industry and flight training services. But it soon blossomed beyond its original vision. By the early 1980s, Air North’s fleet included a number of aircraft. The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nations, through the Vuntut Development Corporation (VDC), its economic arm, joined the company in the late ’90s. In 1995 they were among the first Yukon First Nations to achieve a land claims settlement with the Canadian and Yukon governments after decades of negotiations. In 2002, they acquired a 49.9% stake in Air North, allowing the firm to purchase two Boeing 737s. About 1,500 Yukoners–or one in 15 people in the territory–also have shares in the carrier today.

The Vuntut Gwitchin (“people of the lakes”) call Old Crow, about 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, home. Living in the furthest northwest community of Canada, their population in Whitehorse and Old Crow is about 900. They arrived about 14,000 years ago.

With no access to roads, the community depends on air transport to move people, groceries, mail, goods, building materials, and fuel for heating, vehicles, and power generation, making Air North a “lifeline” for it, says the airline’s vice president and board of director, Greg Charlie. Investing in the carrier wasn’t just a financial decision for the Vuntut Gwitchin. They realized that by doing so, they could influence decisions affecting their community and ensure that some of the money spent on air travel was kept in or returned for both current and future generations.

“Another benefactor was a lot of our citizens had the capabilities of learning about different cultures and different cities within Canada and internationally,” says Charlie. “It created an opportunity to allow our young and old to explore the world a little more coming from a northern community.”

Now, at least 19 Canadian airlines are whole or partly Indigenous-owned, accommodating some of the world’s skinniest air routes. Iskwew Air, Canada’s first Indigenous carrier owned by a woman, took off in August 2021.

“Most Canadians haven’t really been introduced to (the Vuntut Gwitchin),” says Ryan. “They’re a community who have had their challenges. But after 20 years of lobbying the U.S administration, the Vuntut Gwitchin were successful in getting oil and gas companies not to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) region because of the porcupine caribou herd living there that are the main source of food for the people.

The Vuntut Gwitchin are also survivors of Canada’s residential school system, and Charlie said some community members were part of a delegation currently meeting with the Pope to discuss the church’s role in this.

As Air North expands, the next generations are becoming more interested in taking a more active role in the airline, says Charlie. It has provided a training ground for one Vuntut Gwitchin man, now flying bigger jets for Air Canada. Over the years, there have also been flight attendants, passenger service agents, and cargo agents among the First Nations community, and it’s hoped more young people will get their pilot’s license in the future.

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It is unique for its Indigenous ownership, but Air North is also believed to be the only Canadian airline with its own flight kitchen. Bock explains that most carriers, especially in Canada, normally buy off catering companies or other third parties. In 2004, Air North converted its small hangar at its headquarters into a commercial cabinet kitchen with huge walk-in freezers and coolers. From here, staff load containers with their meals onto planes.

This includes the Whitehorse’s Midnight Sun coffee. The airline likes to use food and drink from its own area as much as possible. “Local fare has become a big trend in the Yukon with growing and more diversified agriculture in our region and skilled local chefs bring their best to our tables with foraged and local agricultural ingredients,” says Ryan. Bock enjoys using fresh items such as elk and bison plus wild cranberries and vegetables grown in the territory.

Air North, which scooped Trip Advisor Traveller’s Choice 2020 awards for best airline in Canada and best specialty airline in North America, is today one the Yukon’s largest employers, with more than 400 staff. Starting in May, the carrier will run flights between Whitehorse, Yellowknife (the capital city of Canada’s Northwest Territories), and Toronto. It’s the first time there’s ever been a direct scheduled connection between the region and Canada’s largest city. The carrier hopes that this will make it easier for travelers and the world to discover this part of the globe, famous for the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights

“Quietly, we’ve been running this business with a full First Nation partner guiding and building the company,” says Ryan. “We’re very proud of it, but it’s not very well known, even in Canada.”

chrisjack9645 August 4, 2022

They are called airline stewards and you should not expect it will be a lady. Different terms, for example, air have/lady and steward/attendant are very dated.