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Bearskin Airlines to compete with Air Canada

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The Bear is taking on the big guys.

Bearskin Airlines, which began 38 years ago as one float plane serving remote Northern Ontario native communities, plans to launch a commuter service Sept. 10 between Toronto and Ottawa.

It hopes to attract business travellers, especially the high-tech crowd, with seven round-trip flights a day on nine-seater turboprops between Toronto Buttonville Municipal Airport and Ottawa’s international airport.

“We think that there is a pent-up demand for an alternative to Pearson [International Airport],” said Ron Hell, the airline’s director of marketing and sales.

“That airport, as nice as it is, is busy, congested, it’s very time-consuming,” he said. “For the business person who travels frequently, it’s a pain.

“Here, you can roll in with your car, park for free, and arrive at the airport—although we don’t promote it—15 minutes before flight time. Try doing that at Pearson,” he added.

One-way fares from Buttonville, just north of Toronto, will range from $99 to $329 and are not contingent on advance purchase or minimum stay requirements.

Air Canada return fares between Toronto and Ottawa range from $178 to $664, with such conditions.

But luxury this ain’t.

The aircraft are so small, Bearskin can brag every passenger gets both an aisle and a window seat. And the Pilatus PC-12 turboprops that will fly between Buttonville and Ottawa are too small to require flight attendants.

Passengers can earn Aeroplan points, however, because Bearskin serves as an Air Canada feeder into Thunder Bay.

Those who have taken the no-frills airline, which now has 30 turboprops and flies into 37 communities in Northwestern Ontario and Manitoba, say they used to get a kick out of watching the pilot land the plane and then unload the baggage.

“It’s a tough way to make a living,” said one businessman who’s flown The Bear, as it’s commonly called. “They fly in some pretty tough conditions to some pretty remote places.”

The expansion is seen as another example of the “home-grown” airways competition that has really taken off since the merger of Air Canada and Canadian.

“The demise of Canadian Airlines and the restructuring that followed has provided the opportunity for smaller carriers, for independents, to try these new markets and it’s an exciting development for consumers,” said Warren Everson, vice-president of policy for the Ottawa-based Air Transport Association, the umbrella group for Canada’s airlines.

“We think that there’s a good deal more consumer choice than the popular mythology would imply,” he said.

“Air Canada has lost a substantial amount of market share in the last year that has gone to [low-cost competitors] Canada 3000, WestJet and other independents.

“Where that trend is going right now is hard to say,” Everson said.

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