#ValueOfTourismNWT: Northwestern Air Lease Ltd. 

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(Photos: Brian Harrold of Northwestern Air Lease, photo credit: Thomas Koidhis)

February 13, 2020

The jetstream turbo prop sits on the runway, packed with hockey sticks, gear and 14 kids that are brimming with excitement and perhaps a touch of nerves. For many of them, this is their first time on a plane, and their first time away from home. They’re on their way to Alberta for a hockey game and Northwestern Air Lease (NWAL) pilot Brian Harrold is making sure they get there.

It’s a familiar scene.

Over the years, NWAL has provided significantly reduced rates for local athletes, meaning more kids can participate in more events.

“The kids are usually so excited, they’re bouncing off the walls,” Brian says. “When they are on the flight home it’s different, they’re tuckered out but they fall asleep with a big smile. It’s so important for kids to get out and meet other people, broaden their horizons and understand teamwork better. It makes the kids better people and they are the next generation, so, anything we can do to help, we’re all for it.”

As an aviation business that values tourists as an additional source of revenue, helping kids play sports is one of the unexpected benefits that comes with increased tourism.

“Every tourist that comes into our community is spending money here – taking flights, booking hotels, sitting down at a restaurant, and/or buying trinkets from the stores. Every new dollar that comes in is important to the town and for the South Slave. It means we can do more within the community,” Brian says.

While the company got its start providing firefighting services, then offering regularly scheduled air services throughout northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories, they are continuing to branch out by filling specific tourism market niches. They work alongside tourism businesses like Jackpine Paddle who give travellers access to the Elk and Thelon Rivers, dropping adventurers off in the barren lands, and even doing flight-seeing tours over Wood Buffalo National Park.  NWAL is working hard to diversify within the tourism industry. 

“You have to be constantly evolving as a northern business, you can’t stand still. Tourism is becoming a major industry and we’re looking seriously at the company’s future so we can take advantage of it,” Brian says.

One such business move involved certifying two of their aircrafts to carry canoes. The certification came with a hefty cost but has enabled the airline to take on more business that otherwise would have been missed opportunities; Brian estimates those trips have already paid back the certification expenses. 

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“Over the last 20 years, we’ve probably quadrupled the business that we’re doing with tourists,” he explains. “Working with the Town of Fort Smith’s Tourism and Trade Advisory Board, this year we offered midnight air tours to see the northern lights. During this tour, passengers have two opportunities to fly above the clouds in and around the northern lights.  We will be offering this experience again in September of 2020.”

“We’re also getting quite well known in association with events like Paddlefest and the Dark Sky Festival. Tourists come for those events and then hop on a flight seeing tour with us.”  

On these tours, passengers pay $30 and spend 20-30 minutes exploring the geography, scenery and wildlife of the South Slave from the sky. NWAL has also begun offering a special rate for tourists on their scheduled flights to Hay River and Fort Smith who go out to lodges for hunting, fishing and sightseeing.

Formed in 1965 by Terry Harold and Peter Kuryluk, the company, a staple in the South Slave Region, now employs over 70 people and offers daily flights in Alberta and the NWT.

As NWAL works to attract more travellers with tourist-friendly flight options, one thing is certain: their local communities will benefit alongside them, especially the kids practicing their slap shots.


We know that the tourism industry creates jobs and a healthier economy, but what about the not-so-obvious benefits? #ValueOfTourismNWT is a blog series highlighting the ways the tourism industry contributes to our communities that can often be overlooked.

From tourism facilities and services that locals can also enjoy, to cultural preservation and community wellness, there are countless ways the territory’s growing tourism industry benefits locals. Follow the blog series to learn more.