And at a conference last week in Ottawa of the world's largest pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association, delegates heard that proposed new federal regulations could make that situation even worse.
"As some of the older generation of twin-engine aircraft reach the end of their economic cycle, the newer generation can't be used because the runways can't accommodate them," said Stephen Nourse of the Northern Air Transport Association, who spoke at the conference.
"At that point you start to degrade service to some of these communities."
Peter Black, a First Air pilot who heads the pilot union's remote operations committee, says most of Canada's northern airstrips were built in the 1950s as part of Cold- War-era defence initiatives.
"Most of these strips were based on when the (Distance Early Warning) Line and the DC-3s were flying around the Arctic," he said.
While they've been carefully maintained, few runways have been updated. Nourse's group says only 10 of the dozens of strips in the three territories are paved compared with 61 paved runways in neighbouring Alaska.
The most modern airliner that can land on gravel is the Boeing 737-200, the workhorse of carriers such as First Air and Canadian North. While still safe and reliable, that series of 737s dates back to the 1970s.
"The modern airplane probably burns less than half the fuel, carries more weight and it does it at far less cost per trip. But it cannot operate on a gravel strip," said Black. Carriers "are prevented from using more modern versions of the jets they've been using. They've been going to the turboprop.
"They're not as fast as a jet. They don't carry as many people as a jet. They don't have the same payload as a jet. And they don't have the same range as a jet."
The effect on northerners is poorer service at higher prices, Nourse said.
"The cost will go up into areas where the price of a litre of milk is already a high topic of discussion."
The squeeze between old airstrips and new airplanes could be worsened by proposed federal regulations that would require extra space at both ends of a runway to allow for landing overruns, Black said. While the move would bring southern airports in line with international standards, extra distance isn't always available at northern facilities.
That means the overrun would come out of the runway's overall length, further restricting plane size and payload.
"If I can't add those 500 feet at each end, what I have to do is subtract it when I'm trying to figure out how much load my airplane can land within that runway," Black said.
The pilots' concerns are backed up in a recent Senate report on aviation.
"We are lagging behind," said Liberal Sen. Dennis Dawson, who led the committee that produced the report.
Transport Canada officials had little comment on the matter.
Dawson said that at a time when resource development in the North is expected to increase, much more federal money should be spent to improve Arctic airstrips.
He said the Airport Capital Assistance Program, which budgets an average of $38 million each year for the whole country, isn't enough. And projects such as the proposed public-private partnership to modernize Iqaluit's airport have stalled for lack of private money.
The facts on the ground belie the government's oft-stated emphasis on the North, said Dawson.
"Between what they say and what they do, there's a big difference."Suggest a correction