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James Ward and Wasaya Airways continue to soar through the pandemic

Northwestern Ontario regional carrier sees "Christmas numbers" from thriving freight haul to remote communities
James Ward Wasaya 3
Wasaya Airways president, CEO James Ward (Supplied)

Wasaya Airways president-CEO James Ward admits he's often bothered whenever he hears a passenger has been bumped from a flight.

"We can do better," said the 37-year-old member of Fort William First Nation. "I think there's a better way to do it, with better aircraft."

Ward is on his second tour of duty at the Indigenous-owned northwestern Ontario airline after returning last year to take control of the struggling regional air carrier in the grips of the pandemic that had paralyzed Canada's airline industry. During an earlier stint at Wasaya, he spent a decade in sales, rising to become a manager.

Wasaya is owned by 12 First Nations, providing passenger, charter, and freight and fuel haul service to 25 destinations in the region. The Thunder Bay-headquartered air carrier employs about 300.

When Ward joined the team as CEO in late July 2020, pandemic-related travel restrictions had plummeted Wasaya ridership to between five and 10 per cent. Job cuts had already been made in many departments, including laying off pilots and mechanics.

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For Ward, it was a matter of reassuring everybody that they were on the right path and better days were ahead. It was also an opportunity to reconnect with past business relationships, something that was extremely difficult given the restrictive entry into many fly-in communities.

"Fortunate for me, I had almost 20 years of relationship-building with these communities," said Ward, who departed as Wasaya's sales manager in 2014 to run a variety of businesses, including a local car dealership and a First Nation-owned travel company. 

Last September, Wasaya ridership surged to 30 per cent, then dropped off with the fourth wave of the pandemic. Currently, ridership levels hover between 45 and 50 per cent.

As constraining air travel rules are lifted, Wasaya now has a raft of job openings to fill managerial positions, for ground handlers, apprenticeship pilots, in human resources and accounting, and in the mechanical side of things, among others.

But Wasaya is facing the same dilemma as many Canadian employers: the 'Help Wanted' sign is out but those who were laid off have moved on, seemingly for good. 

With an "extremely young" workforce in place, Ward said they've exhausted all opportunities to promote from within the ranks.

"We're reaching out pretty far to try to find people."

Wasaya's current scheduled service is not operating at the frequency it was during pre-COVID times. Some communities, for the health and well-being of its members, insisted that only one air carrier come in, to reduce their exposure to the virus.

"We're still operating five days a week and we're not servicing all the communities as frequently as we were before the pandemic. We're hitting old locations sometimes twice a week whereas before we were four times a week at each location," said Ward.

When Canada's two major airlines were cutting jobs, regional routes and lobbying Ottawa for subsidy relief, signalling that their very survivability was at stake, Wasaya, providers of a critical economic and transportation lifeline for many remote communities, leaned heavily on an unprecedented surge in freight business.

"Our cargoes just skyrocketed," said Ward. "We've been seeing Christmas numbers throughout the whole pandemic.

"Fortunately for us we are a diverse airline; we don't only handle passengers we handle cargo," said Ward, who credits the leadership in Wasaya's ownership communities for really stepping up to support the airline during tough times.

Communities were ordering PPE, among their supply orders, and, like many consumers, bought into the online shopping craze, ordering a multitude of goods, sight unseen. On a few occasions, the company removed seats from their passenger aircraft to convert the planes into full cargo mode.

It's among a line of business that Wasaya would like to improve upon, beginning with investments in new aircraft to better serve the communities.

The majority of the 23 aircraft in the Wasaya fleet was leased. In the last year, Ward said they've started converting those leases to an ownership position. 

"We're building equity into the business again. Before, we really didn't have much equity in the fleet, but now we seem to be in a position to start acquiring aircraft and actually start purchasing versus leasing."

Ward said it's an unrealistic expectation to run a business of their size based on leasing aircraft. 

"Leasing doesn't really get you anywhere, whereas finance or purchase goes a much longer way."

They're beginning to finance deals on the aircraft they want to keep long-term, and with more freed-up cash flow not spent on leases, they're go looking for more modern aircraft.

"We have some aircraft right now that aren't ideal or best suited for what we do. We'd be looking to improve the fleet that way."

Wasaya operates a mix of big and small passenger and freight aircraft types that Ward would like to reduce.

The twin-engined Hawker is a great freight aircraft, he said, but it's getting old and sourcing parts is a challenge.

"We need to plan for their retirement, I guess you could say."

On the personnel side, Ward wants to focus on doing more hiring from First Nation communities. He estimates between 25 and 30 per cent of their workforce is Indigenous.

Wasaya already has an extensive apprentice pilot program but there's nothing in place, he feels, that  "directly engages our community members;" a matter that's currently under discussion. 

As a graduate of the mechanical engineering program at Confederation College, Ward said he's also open to any relationship-building discussions with post-secondary institutions that benefit their members and train up more qualified staff.

One of his biggest goals is to finally pay a dividend back to the ownership communities, something they've never received. It would be divided up from net profits and given back to each of the 12 communities.

Ward said they are closer to doing that than they've ever been. "If we don't pay dividends this year, we will next year."

As for any growth plans, such as an expansion to northeastern Ontario, Ward said their current focus is on maintaining their core business and catering to the communities that enabled Wasaya to survive.

"I think they deserve some better service and better aircraft. I think they've been lacking over the years and think there's a lotta work there to do for us."

In summing up the state of the airline and his hopes for 2022, Ward said: "We're in unchartered territory. There's no plan; we're just kinda reacting to a situation that keeps changing."

Ward commended his staff for getting through the pandemic and what they've all have contributed to Wasaya's survival "to make it through to this point."

"Things are looking up, for sure, but I'm definitely not letting my guard down."

His optimism for the future rests on "the calibre of people we have employed here and the support we have from our ownership group," as well as the support they've received from their affiliated airlines.

"That gives me the confidence that we're gonna get through this."

This is one in a series of articles profiling recognized leaders from Indigenous communities across Northern Ontario, who stand out for the contributions they’re making on local, regional, and international levels.