Estimated reading time 16 minutes, 20 seconds.
In September, Skies held a roundtable discussion with four corporate aviation department managers and Anthony Norejko, president of the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA).
This was different from past talks, where we’ve invited business aviation operators to speak on the record about their biggest operational concerns. Without exception, they’ve historically shied away, citing a fear of attracting the wrong kind of attention.
This time, to encourage candid discussion, we offered them anonymity in a roundtable format of their peers. The result is a stark, honest assessment of the challenges and opportunities facing Canadian business aviation – a traditionally reticent aviation sector that has always preferred to fly under the radar.
For contextual purposes, our four participants are spread across the country and each operates multiple twin-engine business jets in the super midsize category or above.
Generally speaking, the panel’s four participants are positive about the current state of business aviation in Canada.
With hours flown holding steady or even increasing, operators see a bright future, albeit one without massive growth.
“We all want to be optimistic,” said Operator B, a Western Canadian operator of two business jets that fly roughly 400 hours each per year. “We trust there is a future in this business; we all pour a lot of time and effort into it to make business aviation a very productive and constructive component of not only our industry, but the economy overall.”
While the use of a corporate aircraft has always ebbed and flowed according to business strategy, Norejko said the CBAA has recently noted “an element of seeking new business and maintaining current business” that bodes well for business aviation.
But all panel members cautioned that a sunny outlook for the sector depends largely on perception – both internal and external.
“There’s not a CFO [chief financial officer] in the world that doesn’t look at corporate aviation and ask its value proposition,” said B.
Operator C, who flies two jets based in Eastern Canada, agreed. “In business aviation, it’s often about perception versus reality. And those perceptions and challenges come not just from the public but internally as well. We can’t become siloed within our own companies; when a new CEO comes on board, you have to legitimize the operation to them all over again – it’s a business tool.”
Very quickly, executives come to realize the inherent benefits of business aviation.
“I found that individuals who understand the value of time understand the value of a business aircraft – security and safety, internal networking,” commented Operator D, also based in the West. “At the end of the day, they support the company’s bottom line and growth. There is a huge value here and that’s why most of the world’s large companies have corporate aircraft.”
But while company executives soon come to realize that a business aircraft is essentially a time machine – a tool, just like an iPhone, according to Norejko – the general public is less easy to convince.
Although it’s been 11 years since the CEOs of Chrysler, Ford and GM flew in their business aircraft to Washington to request taxpayer bailouts, that single event in November 2008 set off a shockwave of anti-business aviation sentiment. While that tide has since been turned back through education campaigns run by associations like CBAA and U.S.-based National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), the public perception of business aviation remains skeptical – and that’s difficult to change.
“I think we’re seeing a bit of an upward trend with bizav being more accepted. I think it’s improving, but there is a long way to go,” commented D.
“It’s a challenge on a few different fronts. It is an industry that is often not understood and forgotten by many. The overall bigger perception of business aircraft is sometimes that they are toys for the wealthy. And [executives] don’t want to open themselves up to that criticism,” he continued.
While some business professionals might avoid discussing the company jet, research published by NBAA says they shouldn’t.
“Business aircraft users have a dominant presence on ‘best of the best’ lists for the most innovative, most admired, best brands and best places to work, as well as dominate the lists of companies strongest in corporate governance and responsibility, revenue growth and market share, indicating that business aviation is the sign of a well-managed global company,” according to the association’s Business Aviation Fact Book.
There is definitely a case to be made for bizav, said Norejko.
“It’s clear, if you deploy this asset the right way, you get time, freedom, flexibility and efficiency,” he said. “We choose to pay for business tools and, in this case, you make the cost/benefit analysis,” he explained.
According to the CBAA’s 2017 economic impact report, Canada’s 1,900 business aviation operations generate 23,000 jobs in Canada and are responsible for a $3.4 billion contribution to gross domestic product and $7.8 billion in economic output.
Skies asked the panel to discuss their three biggest operational challenges. In no time at all, a few common concerns emerged.
One is simply keeping pace with regulatory changes to ensure compliance.
“The biggest challenge that is always on our minds is around changes in the regulatory environment,” said A, an Ontario-based operator of two mid-size corporate jets. “That always brings with it some angst. We’ll always figure it out and do what is required, but it’s commonplace that those changes are not necessarily put in the context of our world.”
Operator D said it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of regulations from different agencies.
“It’s never simple,” he said. “There isn’t necessarily one place to go to get the information. You have to keep up with Transport Canada, the Canada Labour Code, and Occupational Health & Safety. Falling behind could result in a penalty. The CBAA is a big resource for an operator to tap into in that regard. But, at the end of the day, it’s the operator’s responsibility to make sure they follow through.”
In general, operators feel business aviation is forced to adapt to regulations that are crafted with the airline sector in mind – regulations that in most cases do not fit their unique operational realities.
“We can talk about the new [CARS] 604 guidelines through to fatigue management; it’s a reflection of the regulator’s failure to understand and facilitate this sector,” said A.
“I have had conversations lately with people who interact with Transport Canada and the trajectory is not good,” he continued. “It’s a regulator in decline and I don’t think we’ve reached the bottom yet. [As a mature flight department,] I have very little interaction with Transport Canada and I’m happy with my relationship with my POI [principal operations inspector]. But that isn’t everyone’s experience.”
Last year, C was seeking a special authorization from Transport Canada. While his contact at the agency was as helpful as possible, he had no corporate or airline experience to draw upon.
“My experience is that Transport is very helpful. You get to know your local people, but they can’t do everything,” said C. “Retirements are causing high turnovers. People are leaving to fly because the opportunity is there now. You can really see the lack of experience and manpower to turn around files.”
B agreed, noting that the regulatory element can be tied back to the issue of perception and a general lack of understanding
“We continue today to struggle in Canada with the public, regulator and airport authorities’ perception of business aviation,” he said. “We find ourselves constantly having to make our case for inclusion, to make sure we have the access that we need, and that regulations when introduced are not simply adopting an airline model to business aviation. We are constantly having to preserve our position in the industry. A lot of the challenges we face are embedded in that reality.”
C pointed out that it’s not just domestic regulations that pose challenges.
“I would say there’s a fairly large percentage of corporate operators who operate across the Atlantic intermittently. It can be challenging because the EASA [European Union Aviation Safety Agency] regs continue to change. It takes an immense amount of flight preparation to head off any issues.”
Despite these challenges, Norejko pointed out some positive progress with the regulator. He credited Transport Canada for working with CBAA on the request to delegate authority to the association to approve aircraft minimum equipment lists (MELs) for bizav operators.
I’m cautiously optimistic,” continued the CBAA president. “If we look at the MEL experience as a toehold, we are hopeful . . . We are not asking to change the regulations or their oversight responsibility – we’re simply asking them to delegate the subject matter experts, in direct contact with Transport Canada, the ability to get this work done.”
Perhaps one of the biggest sore spots for operators is ensuring business aviation access to Canada’s major airports, an issue that CBAA has been actively promoting for years.
“If we’re talking about the use of an asset, in this case airports, it’s that you have a business model that fits around the airlines,” said Norejko. “But the thing that airports serve is Canadians – and that includes businesses that fly in and out. We have to contend with a business model that is more favourable to the airlines.”
The association has been making progress with the YYZ Airport Technical Working Group to ensure business aviation access to Toronto Pearson International, as well as with the Montreal airport operator, Aéroports de Montréal, among others.
While our panellists all appreciate the association’s lobbying efforts, it’s clear this is a frustrating issue.
“We could spend hours talking about Toronto and Montreal right now, which are trying to make it more complicated for us to access those airports,” said A.
Operator C said access to Montreal is simply “brutal.” His operation runs a quasi-scheduled service to Montreal and has recently found those flights hampered by runway construction and restrictions to general aviation aircraft.
“I don’t believe we fall into that criteria, but as far as the airport authority is concerned, we do,” said C. “We’ve had to adjust our schedule and will start operating from St. Hubert instead of Trudeau. It’s a real inconvenience to our passengers.”
Operator A is clearly frustrated with the situation.
“If there is a limitation at an airport for construction or runway work, their default is airlines can come and go as they please, and we’ll put bans in place for non-airlines,” he commented. “I find that very frustrating. The idea that we’re just a less worthy customer is offensive to all of us and they appear to have no remorse for doing that. We’ve gone through that in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary.”
He added that clearances will sometimes change en route; diversions become a possibility.
“My job in management is to eliminate and reduce distractions so my pilots can fly safely – then we get thrown these curveballs and it just adds stress where it’s not needed,” said A. “We’re all about mitigating risk.”
The CBAA’s Norejko reiterated that airports are federal assets for all Canadians to use. Restricting bizav access also affects fixed-base operators who rely on this traffic, he added.
One operator suggested airport authorities and Transport Canada should be “taken to task” because they are failing to advocate for business aviation.
“We promote the value of what we do because we see it,” he said. “They have an obligation [to understand and] to advocate for us. We shouldn’t constantly have to advocate for our positions.”
Operators pointed out that a lot of behind-the-scenes planning goes into transporting the CEO to an important meeting. A sudden change to airport access can cause a trip cancellation or lost revenue for the company.
As the winter season approaches, business aviation operations are still fighting for equal – and affordable – access to airport deicing facilities. In every case, operators must plan ahead.
In some cases, smaller airports that don’t have regular scheduled service reserve their deicing fluid for the occasional airline traffic that does come in – telling business aviation that it must wait.
“Often the airlines will engage a third party on the field to provide deicing,” said Norejko. “The individual bizav operator often faces much higher prices. And this exposes the problem we have: One, the airports having the equipment; and two, we don’t have the volume and therefore we pay double or more than the airlines pay.”
In fact, it’s not uncommon for a business jet to pay upwards of $8,000 to get deiced, depending on the airport and the level of contamination.
Operator D said it pays to be proactive and his flight department tries to make arrangements ahead of time.
“We personally do everything we can to not have to deice without compromising safety,” he said. “That includes hangarage, if available. We also carry our own deicing equipment along with us for minimal contamination if needed. We put the onus on the flight crews to be very proactive to look at weather. We are second-class citizens to the airlines when it comes to deicing.”
Operator C said he tries to get deiced by the FBO in the hangar when passengers arrive, “to bypass the shenanigans at the deicing bay.
“If we’re going to a remote location, we may take some deicing fluid along with us,” he continued. “But at the big airports, we’re at the bottom of the list. In Ottawa, we had to deice at the deicing bay. There was light freezing rain at the time. It cost us $8,500 that morning to get deiced.”
B said his operation has also had difficulty getting access to deicing at some airports. “Sometimes we have to ask airlines for help.
“Maybe some thought needs to be given to deicing is every bit as important in ensuring safety as is fire and rescue. Perhaps resources need to be directed there,” he suggested.
D is encouraged by a request earlier this year from Transport Minister Marc Garneau, in which all aviation operators and airports were required to provide their deicing plan for the winter of 2019-2020. The request was made following a 2017 accident in which the Transportation Safety Board pointed to ice on the wings as contributing to the crash.
“To me, that’s kind of a big step,” he said. “We know as an operator that it is an important thing to do, but to send out a letter seems to indicate they realize they need to step in. I think it’s going in the right direction. Government needs to be held accountable to step up to help all operators have equal access to that service at airports. It’s an important bucket of safety that can’t be ignored.”
Steady staffing — for now
None of the business aviation operators we spoke to said they are having trouble finding staff. Most indicated they are fortunate to have experienced, long-term employees and enjoy a low turnover.
“One of the reasons I think we’re not challenged that way is that these are very good jobs,” said Operator C. “They are high paying, rewarding. It’s an element that is attractive to pilots. These corporate jobs are few and far between, but they are the bestkept secret in aviation.”
But even though none of them are currently hiring, they’re still aware of the human resources challenges other operators are facing.
“I would put us all at the top of the food chain in our world,” said A. “I would fully expect that any of us could post a position and we’d choose from the best applicants. [But] I would hate to be a small jet operator starting out. Even the regional [airlines] now, the choicest airline pilot role has been distilled down.”
D said his company has much to offer its flight department employees, including fair compensation, an attractive schedule, well maintained and equipped aircraft, and work/life balance. He believes education is key to attracting tomorrow’s top-notch employees.
“We operate in a sector that has real professional people that are high performers with good paying jobs,” said D. “Often, corporate aviation from an industry perspective is not viewed as a desirable place to be, but it’s becoming more sought after. Especially with the shortage of personnel, it’s important for the industry to educate talent coming into this world, so they know bizav is very much alive and well.”
As the voice of business aviation in Canada, the CBAA is focused on celebrating its potential for not only revenue and profit growth, but also customer and employee satisfaction.
“CBAA is the purveyor of the facts,” said Norejko. “I see our job as celebrating those buckets about how an aircraft can be used.”
When it comes to changing the perception of business aviation, he said public opinion is diverse and hard to measure. On the other hand, collaborative partnerships with authorities and regulators can make definitive progress.
Despite its many challenges, every operator participating in the roundtable discussion loves the business and is optimistic about the future.
“I have the best job in the world,” said Operator A. “Despite all the frustrations, I still love our business. We’re the classic ops world. You don’t hear anything from anyone when it goes well. The passengers have no idea what we’ve gone through when we have a bad day, but we still pull it off for the customers.”
As long as there is a business case to be made for corporate aviation, these operators say they aren’t going anywhere.
“I’m optimistic because this sector has some of the best people in the business: hard working, experienced,” concluded B. “We understand the value; we’re not giving up. We’re just looking for a little more co-operation.
“We won’t go down without a fight – we just wish we didn’t have to have our elbows out all the time.”