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Finding the Right Resources

Keeping Canada’s economic engine humming is an important role helicopter operators serving resource-based sectors play: however, mining an entirely different resource base is proving to be a growing challenge for operators nationwide.


August 10, 2012
By Matt Nicholls


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Keeping Canada’s economic engine humming is an important role helicopter operators serving resource-based sectors play: however, mining an entirely different resource base is proving to be a growing challenge for operators nationwide.

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The roster for Helicopters’ second annual roundtable (from left): Ken Glaze, HeliJet; Dany Ricard, Capitale Hélicoptère; Gord Bean, Great Slave Helicopters; Terry Eissfeldt, West Coast Helicopters; Peter Barratt, West Coast Helicopters; Matt Nicholls, Helicopters magazine; Keith Westfall, Yellowhead Helicopters; Fred Jones, Helicopter Association of Canada; Geoff Goodyear, Universal Helicopters. (Photo by Alison de Groot)


 

Human resources issues including retention, effective methods of training, delivering the proper experience to low-flying-time pilots and dealing with a looming shortage of skilled employees, was just one of the overriding themes of Helicopters magazine’s second annual industry roundtable.

The invitation-only event held during the Helicopter Association of Canada’s (HAC) annual general meeting and trade show in the early morning hours of March 17 in Ottawa brought together eight industry leaders from a variety of organizational backgrounds for an intriguing 90-minute discussion.

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Once they got the sleep out of their eyes and the caffeine kicked in, panelists kicked around a variety of subjects including the aforementioned human resources issues, how they’ve diversified operations in challenging economic conditions, their perception of the Ornge investigation and more. Here’s a synopsis of what they had to say.

A Diversified Approach
Economic realities have forced many Canadian operators to diversify businesses and seek new revenue streams and while panelists agreed focusing on your bread and butter is paramount, capitalizing on new markets can make a good product great – and catch the eye of new clients.

Great Slave Helicopters chief pilot Gord Bean said his firm has benefited immensely from its foray into South America with its Master Service Agreement in support of ongoing oil and gas seismic exploration activity with South American Exploration LLC’s Peruvian operations. This high-utilization project keeps five medium and intermediate Bell 212 and AS350 helicopters active in northeastern Peru for a minimum of six months, with more work expected to immediately follow. The company is also active in Chile. And while Bean acknowledges Great Slave is a much larger operation than most in Canada, the philosophy of taking calculated risks goes a long way in finding success in sluggish economic conditions.

It’s a philosophy management follows at HeliJet, the successful commuter and charter firm celebrating 25 years of operations on British Columbia’s west coast. Ken Glaze, the company’s VP of business development, said his firm’s biggest challenge has been the economic stress that has been felt not only in Canada, but around the world. Being primarily a commuter service driven by the business and government sectors between Victoria and Vancouver, “we feel it,” he said.

To offset the downturn, the company is stepping up its charter service and delving into the sportfishing industry, as well as building its air medevac exploits through its contract with the BC Ambulance Service. “We didn’t really think we’d do very much (charter business), but we’ve been very lucky to find some sportfishing lodges to fly to in Haida Gwaii on the north coast, and their busy season meshes perfectly with our downside,” Glaze said. “Air ambulance is another area of interest for us. We really enjoy it because it requires the degree of expertise that we’ve taken pride in developing – two pilots, two engines. And you feel pretty good because you are actually doing something for someone. It’s a good reason to go flying.”

Delving into new markets is essential for smaller operators, especially in highly competitive markets, stressed Peter Barratt, operations manager/co-owner with West Coast Helicopters. Barratt, a self-confessed fishing nut, said his operation has been in the forestry game for years, but has slowly branched into tourism, heli-fishing and heli-skiing.

 “One of the challenges we have on the West Coast is competing with the number of companies that we have,” he said “I’ve been flying for about 44 years and after about 34 years, when I moved to the little town of Port McNeill, we had four or maybe five companies on the coast of B.C. At last count it was 23 or 24. The number of flying hours has increased a little bit, but if you divide that pie up, it’s getting skinnier and skinnier. So, you really have to pay attention to your market and how you are doing business; it’s a 24/7 job.”

Opportunities in tourism have enabled Newfoundland’s Universal Helicopters to improve its bottom line. President/CEO Geoff Goodyear said his firm takes a slow approach when tapping new markets – preferring an evolution rather than a revolution. “We have not targeted one particular market and said, ‘Well that’s a great idea let’s put another leg on the three-legged stool, let’s make it a four-legged stool.’ It’s recognizing opportunities when they come by,” he said. “What we’re noticing, particularly in our part of the world, is an increased interest in tourism that would involve helicopters. It’s in its embryonic stage. There are parks in Labrador that bring a significant amount of national attention – and with that comes a certain type of tourist that will use aviation to come and go. So, we’re finding that we are evolving into it . . . we’re not trying to, it’s just there. Our marketplace has been historically natural resource based: fire suppression, exploration, and I don’t see that changing over the short term or mid-term.”

Quebec City’s Capitale Hélicoptère is one of the fastest growing operations in Quebec, offering a variety of services including tourism, training, and air medical transport through its partner Airmedic (see, Angels from Above, pg. 14). According to president/CEO Dany Ricard, operating new aircraft in a tough environment where the cost of the helicopters is high – and the price per hour very low – remains a challenge. But the tourism market in Quebec City has been a Godsend.

“There’s a big market for tourism in Quebec City and it’s been unexploited forever because no one has had any helicopters available for that so we plan on working on this part of our business,” he said. “We’ are also trying to get a new heliport which will be closer to the city centre in Quebec City. That would be something new because Quebec City has never had a heliport really close.”

The company is also working with Airmedic and as Ricard notes, “we still have Hydro Quebec. We’re working hard with them to get them to know the new technology. The fleet in Quebec is very old, very old helicopters, so these are the new sectors we are working to bring some change. The mining industry is booming, so we’re profiting from that, too.”

HAC president/CEO Fred Jones said there are many positive signs that operators of all sizes are starting to find their way in the challenging economic landscape. “We see the big picture from operators across the country and I hear on a regular basis that the last couple of years have been pretty challenging for operation across the board. We’re still in a recovering economy but in some ways . . .but we are seeing some pretty promising signs of recovery.”

Star Search
Staffing challenges, training, mentoring and developing qualified pilots and engineers are realities all operators are dealing with – and an aging workforce will put further strain on Canadian firms. So how are our panelists dealing with these human resources conundrums?

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Quebec’s Capitale Hélicoptère will continue to diversify operations in both the medical transport and tourism fields in 2012, says president/CEO Dany Ricard (left). Helijet’s Ken Glaze (right) says both are growing markets for his firm as well.


 

Staff retention is one of the major challenges for West Coast Helicopters, especially in remote areas such as Port McNeill, noted Terry Eissfeldt, general manager/director of maintenance. Also, the AME trade is not even a trade he pointed out – it is not classified as a red seal trade by the educators in Canada and Transport Canada (TC) doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that an apprentice is a term in the regulations.

“So, we’re up against a formidable challenge today in the fact that along with the X/Y and that generation, young people today come out of their secondary education with a list – when I came out of college all I wanted to do was find a job,” he said. “But they come with a list and expectations today, so the reason a red seal trade is important is because along with that designation comes certain tax exemptions that they are not eligible for without. And so, that’s part of the industry challenge.”

To offset this, Eissfeldt has created a maintenance-training program at his firm aimed at younger employees to ensure they get the experience they need. The program does not have a huge volume as of yet, but it has promise – and is one way the company is trying to keep the pipeline of experienced workers full. “We take them in, train them and introduce them into the maintenance program and that’s how we end up pouring into the communities – but retaining them is one of the major challenges we have.”

Goodyear concurs that mentoring and actively creating/building a corporate community employees want to embrace goes a long way to ensuring staff will stick around. It’s paramount for the long-term success of any organization.

“I’ve got a cadre of experienced people who are going to be retiring in the next five to six years as I’m sure all of us do,” Goodyear said. “We have a set program that takes three years from the time we hire the guy or the girl which takes them through to the point where they are actually some value to the industry down the line. It’s a long and painful experience particularly for energetic and ambitious people and we have to be very honest with them up front. But, in the long term, it works. With the exception of five of our pilots, everyone in the organization came to Universal as a 100-hour pilot, so they’re part of the culture of the organization right from the onset. And I’m convinced that despite the cost and time invested in the process to get those people to the point where you can use them on the line, it’s still the only long-term solution to maintain legacy status.”

Another challenge is working with employees who are only interested in contract work. This creates real challenges, especially with regards to loyalty issues, noted Keith Westfall, safety officer/line officer with Yellowhead Helicopters. Said Westfall: “I’m not a big proponent of contracted guys because I find sometimes their performance is not great. Gord and I were talking this morning that for companies to survive now you’ve really got to interact with your customer – you’ve got to know customers fully, you need to be a part of their operation. To a large extent, the employee has to be part of the whole picture. So, when I come in and collect my big cheque for two weeks and leave, sometimes a lot of that community aspect suffers.”

Ricard concurs and finds many contract workers just aren’t fully committed to the organization. “They don’t want to have a full time job, even if we tell them we will keep them all year long with no layoffs, they would rather stay on contract and come to you for two or three months and say, ‘I’ve got enough, I don’t want to work any more this year or I want two months off,’ ” he said. “You can’t rely on those guys so it’s a big problem.”

Barratt maintains having a diverse operation can help in this regard. “When you diversify your operation, you can have a choice of who you keep on permanently, and people that you contract,” he said. “The trick is trying to balance it because you’re trying to balance it from the perspective of the company, not necessarily for the individual.”

Jones agreed adding that there’s an intangible but very important element of continuity across seasons. Because of the close nature of the relationship of the company with the customer, a clients’ employees get to know a particular pilot, they get to know how they operate, they get to know them personally . . . you know a life in a camp is so close quarters that you really have to get along and the interpersonal skills are very important.

“And people like the comfort of having the same pilots season to season and that usually occurs when you have a full-time person,” he added. “Occasionally, there are contractors who will return year after year, but frequently it’s the full-time employees that are in a position to provide the same service in the same location for the same customer for the same company for five to 10 years and sometimes much longer.”

The Ornge Crush
The Ornge situation in Ontario has garnered headlines in the mainstream media for months focusing on the mismanagement of the province’s HEMs service by its former management team. The organization is under a criminal probe for financial irregularities amid allegations of questionable business practices, high executive salaries and whether public money may have been used for private gain. Helicopters asked panelists how they perceive the investigation and whether or not it would have a lasting impact on the Canadian helicopter industry. Does the investigation and negative media coverage taint the industry in any way?

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Universal Helicopters president/CEO Geoff Goodyear says there’s often a real disconnect between what clients are demanding and what operators can actually provide. Clients do not fully understand how performance-based operations work, says Goodyear.


 

Goodyear said the issue has become quite poignant in Newfoundland and Labrador because the provincial government is currently in a debate with regards to the level of air ambulance and helicopter emergency medical services that they want to provide in the province. Newfoundland and Labrador currently does not have a designated HEMS option.

“They and we are watching it very, very closely,” Goodyear said. “It may be a little too early to get lessons learned from it, except that from our perspective, particularly where we don’t operate IFR twin-engine aircraft, maybe it’s a lesson that bigger is not always better. Depending on the geography and the area in which you operate, many of us around the table have aircraft that can provide quite an adequate EMS service. There are other options.”

Great Slave’s Bean suggested the aviation aspects of the case are not necessarily the crux of the issue but rather the get-rich-quick philosophy of the former management team. In short it was all about greed on the part of a select few. “I don’t think it’s about the flying,” he said. “I have a couple of friends flying at Ornge, and it speaks to the same old thing – greed with no oversight. You can see where they ran with that. They paid themselves well, they set up all those companies inside the company. . .”

Glaze agreed and said the “lack of oversight” angle was spot on. “This was a group of people who were not necessarily aviation people who formed their own little kingdom . . . it wasn’t the industry that did that. The story there for me is how did someone create a situation and run away not answering to anybody without oversight. If the Ministry of Health in Ontario needs some help cleaning up that picture, we can certainly help.”

Jones added that it’s difficult for any industry not to have its reputation affected by events of a particular company, simply because it’s the nature of the public and the media. If there’s an airline accident or a problem with the airline the industry wears it in some way.

“But in fairness,” he said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to take the activities of any one company whether it’s in an Ornge scenario, or any company and judge – and the facts are not in to be clear. And we won’t know until the investigation is complete, but it doesn’t necessarily paint the industry in a bad light. People sometimes perceive it that way, but I think that’s not fair as the way they interpret it . . . I think it’s unfair to paint the industry that way and it’s not clear at this point what all the facts are anyway.”

A Broken Relationship
While time was short for the discussion regarding ongoing challenges with TC, it didn’t mean it didn’t generate some sharp assessment. Many operators are still dealing with issues discussed at last year’s event such as regional disparity and the interpretation of regulations, poor service levels, a declining level of experience inside the department and now a reduction in staff that is seriously going to affect the industry going forward.

TC’s inability to recognize the specific needs of the helicopter industry is causing grief for operators coast to coast – and it doesn’t look like things will be getting better any time soon. HeliJet’s Glaze was particularly disappointed with the way service levels have diminished over the years and suggested a vast improvement in the future seems unlikely.

“Over the years, it’s always been an interesting relationship depending on who you can talk to or who is in the senior bureaucratic seat or even the minister’s seat, but now we’ve got an issue where it’s really hard to get something done,” he said. “Their resources are being diminished to the point where I know companies that have a simple ops manual amendment in front of Transport for a year – I mean come on. It’s getting really hard to get things done – let alone push the envelope and do new things or get our capabilities recognized by the fixed-wing people who seem to be writing the rules.”

Jones concurred, noting that his phone rarely rings in his office with a positive news story regarding TC. “We see a huge backlog in the regulatory system with huge backlogs in amendments that we discussed years ago that are still in the cue for processing and that’s frustrating for all of us, operators and the association that are investing a lot of time in helping to generate those amendments,” he said. “But probably an even bigger issue for the industry is we are not getting the air time that we need from the regulator for issues that are important to industry.

“Yes, they are driven by some of the same safety priorities there’s no question, but there’s also got to be some time left over for industry driven safety priorities and industry-driven efficiency issues and provide us with an opportunity to innovate and make our operations more safe.”

Talking the Talk
Helicopters’ second annual roundtable was a great way to spend 90 minutes and Eissfeldt summed it up best at our booth shortly after the discussion: “There was so much more to say. We barely dented your list, Matt.”

Right you are, Terry, there is and true, we barely dented it – and that’s the nature of the beast; helicopter types aren’t exactly ones to shy away from an issue or two. Imagine what would have been said had we moved the friendly confines to one of the nation’s capital’s favourite pubs and replaced the coffee with a bevy that offered a little more kick? “Now, there’s your plan next year,” joked Bean.

We’ll take that into consideration. Regardless, the discussion was a fruitful one and uncovered intriguing points on industry challenges and possible solutions operators may apply. For more coverage of the 2012 Roundtable, please see our video series at www.helicoptersmagazine.com.

The Starting Roster

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Peter Barratt
Role: Co-owner/Operations Manager, West Coast Helicopters
Organization: Safety, service, reliability – it’s the driving force behind everything at this Port McNeill, B.C.-based operator. The company specializes in forestry work, tourism, fire suppression, hydro and aerial photography/film work.
Location: Four locations in B.C. including Port McNeill, Bella Coola, Campbell River and Nanaimo.

Gord Bean
Role: Chief Pilot, Great Slave Helicopters
Organization: A subsidiary of Discovery Air, Yellowknife, N.W.T.-based, Great Slave Helicopters specializes in mining exploration, oil and gas seismic exploration, fire suppression, and wildlife surveys.
Location:Great Slave Helicopters operates bases across the Canadian north, Ontario and South America.

Terry Eissfeldt
Role: General Manager, Director of Maintenance, West Coast Helicopters
Organization: Safety is a top priority at West Coast. The company has woven into the fabric of its safety policy a proactive safety management approach, which adds structure to its philosophy of accident and incident prevention, hazard reduction.
Location: Four locations in B.C. including Port McNeill, Bella Coola, Campbell River and Nanaimo.

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Ken Glaze
Role: VP Business Development, HeliJet
Organization: Since 1986, the company has provided a reliable commuter service between Vancouver Island and Greater Vancouver. Also offers air medical, charter and a growing tourism business.
Location: Vancouver International Airport, Richmond, B.C. (corporate); Victoria Harbour Heliport; Vancouver Island Heliport; Prince Rupert; Haida Gwaii.

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Geoff Goodyear
Role: President/CEO, Universal Helicopters
Organization: UHNL began operations in 1963 as Universal Helicopters Ltd. and was once a part of the Okanagan Helicopters group. It is now an independent company, offering a variety of services including long line slinging, mineral exploration support, wildlife research and management.
Location: UHNL’s corporate head office, main stores and accounting services are situated in Goose Bay, Labrador with other bases situated in St. John’s, Pasadena and Gander, Nfld.

Fred Jones
Role: President/CEO, Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC)
Organization: HAC represents 80 per cent of civil helicopters in Canada. The association boasts some 130 operator members and 120 associate members
Location: Ottawa, Ont.

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Dany Ricard
Role: President/CEO, Capitale Hélicoptère
Organization:: One of the fastest growing operations in Quebec, Capitale Hélicoptère offers a variety of services including tourism, training, air medical transport (through partner Airmedic
Location: Jean Lesage International Airport, Quebec City, Que.

Keith Westfall
Role: Safety Officer/Line Officer, Yellowhead Helicopters
Organization: Yellowhead Helicopters is a privately held Canadian company that has been providing commercial helicopter solutions to the public, industry and government since 1975.
Location: Yellowhead Helicopters has nine bases in British Columbia and Alberta.


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