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Into uncharted entrepreneurial territory (03/05)

North American Charters 2000 has created significant turbulence by biting a hefty chunk out of the air carrier service sector. A few happy North American Charters 2000 passengers. Photo by Ian Provided. But it didn’t happen overnight.
North American Charters 2000 has created significant turbulence by biting a hefty chunk out of the air carrier service sector.

Into uncharted entrepreneurial territory
A few happy North American Charters 2000 passengers. Photo by Ian Provided.
But it didn’t happen overnight. Even the pilots had to multi-task in the early goings, selling tickets, handling luggage and dispatching aircraft for eight months as NAC set up their service counter in Sioux Lookout.

They’re flying above it all these days, but maintain that no job is beneath them.

Airline companies do not usually have that kind of flexibility within the company, according to Tom Meilleur, director of operations and chief pilot.

“It is a bit of a surprise in our industry,” he says. “I don’t think we would be where we are today without (our employees’) assistance and willingness to bend - bend a lot.”

Starting off with just two Pilatus aircraft and a handful of employees, the company decided to change flight routes in the northwest by introducing direct service into communities. Before the company’s inception in 2000, passengers flew from Webequie to Neskantaga to Eabametoong to Pickle Lake, then eventually to Sioux Lookout.

“It was a milk run operation and that is the way the North was set up for 20 or 30 years.”

Stopovers were physically draining on community elders and weather conditions at times prohibited planes from landing to deliver much-needed supplies or medical attention. Cost was also a factor, so chiefs from the Eabametoong, Neskantaga and Webequie First Nations approached Health Canada representatives who were familiar with the flight routes. Health Canada had already addressed air carrier companies in an attempt to find a more suitable flight route for professionals travelling to remote areas, but it was to no avail, Meilleur says.

Into the great wide open

So the three chiefs put their heads together and decided to purchase Rolin Frayne’s North American Charters Ltd. Their mandate was simple: to provide better service at a reduced cost to communities in the North. It did not take long for the airline to attract 11 communities interested in quality air transportation. Customer service levels increased as a result of direct flights to 90 per cent of the 14 communities as prices decreased. In fact, other airlines had to to meet NACs’ pricing standard in order to stay competitive. Now considered the local benchmark, their pricing has saved northwestern Ontarian flyers over $12 million, according to Meilleur.

“Prices have been reduced on the order of 40 to 50 per cent since 2000.”

After a year of operation, the founding father communities invited Sachigo Lake and Sandy Lake First Nations to join the NAC 2000 business partnership, rounding out the current ownership makeup.

About 30 per cent of the company’s 74 employees are Aboriginal.

Passengers can now enjoy five PC-12 Pilatus aircraft and one Beech King Air 100 carrier.

NAC 2000 would like to add more Northern community routes and purchase more aircraft this year.

“We are looking forward to serving other markets.”

By keeping prices down, Meilleur hopes NAC’s attractive pricing scheme will convince more people they are a dependable and economic way to fly.

Before the communities bought NAC 2000, sales were approximately $900,000 a year. Today, the company brings in an average of $2 million annually totalling approximately $10 million in four years.

With office operations out of Thunder Bay and satellite counters in Winnipeg and Sioux Lookout, the company is poised to have a stronger presence in Northern regions, but Meilleur does not want to grow too fast. Steady as she goes is the name of the game. Any revenue made from the air service is put back into the company in the form new stock (planes) or hiring more staff. However, the founding communities have had an increase in share prices and Sandy Lake and Sachigo First Nations will get their share increase soon.





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