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"I've always wanted this job," says new Wasaya Airways CEO

James Ward promises "hands-on" leadership in directing regional carrier through pandemic

From his first day starting in an entry-level sales position at Wasaya Airways in 2004, James Ward admittedly harboured an aspirational goal of running the First Nation-owned regional carrier.

"I look at Wasaya as giving me opportunity," said the energetic and driven 35-year-old Fort William First Nation member, on being appointed president-CEO of Wasaya last month.

He succeeds Tom Morris, who suddenly retired last month after his second stint running the airline.

"I started here, I grew here, I made a lot of great contacts with the communities and a lot of the people of the North. That's where my loyalty lies," said Ward.

His first day at the helm was July 27.

Wasaya Airways is owned by 12 First Nations and provides passenger, charter and freight service to 25 destinations in northwestern Ontario. Many of the more than 300 employees at the company are Indigenous.

Ward, the former CEO of Happy Time Tours, HT Leasing, and Carrick Express had been appointed to Wasaya Airlines board of directors two months ago before the ownership group approached him to gauge his interest in taking over the top job at the 31-year-old company.

Ward spent close to a decade in sales at Wasaya between 2004 and 2014, rising to sales manager before departing to run a Thunder Bay car dealership for three years.

Ward acknowledged even when he wasn't working for Wasaya, he was always keeping tabs on the latest company news.

"It's true what they say, the airline industry like a small family. Even if you leave, you're always thinking about it."

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Being approached to return to the Wasaya fold was a no-brainer.

"I've always wanted this job, I never ever thought I'd be sitting here after leaving the airline, and never thought I'd be back in this sort of role."

When asked what it's like to become a first-time CEO of an airline in the middle of a pandemic, Ward laughs. "I don't know if it was a good business decision.

"I'm just the type of guy who focuses on what I need to do and thankfully some people recognize that. I've been known to get things done. I feel like maybe I'm an old soul, but I have good work ethic and I have to thank my parents for that."

In running Happy Time Tours, a First Nation-owned travel agency, the struggling company was on its last legs when Ward took over to nurse it back to profitability within three years.

His approach at Wasaya will be the same; by staying on top of every aspect of the far-flung operation.

"When they (Wasaya board) asked me how many weeks holidays I wanted and I said, that doesn't matter, I don't take holidays. I'm here every day, I don't miss any meetings. I've very hands-on and my attention to detail will put us in a better spot."

With intimate knowledge of Wasaya's recurring challenges, high on Ward's agenda will be an intense focus on customer service, on sales, and a Pickle Lake base that deserves some attention.

"Those were the troublesome areas when I left and it seems like it's still struggling."

On the personnel side, Ward wants to generate more employment opportunities for First Nation youth, particularly in reviving a training program that puts more Indigenous pilots in the cockpit.

And he intends to make good on a request from one chief in the ownership group to take young people under his wing to groom them for senior management positions.

Prior to starting at Wasaya in 2004, Ward took mechanical engineering at Confederation College.

"If I could go back I would do business but you just don't know when you're that young what you want to do.

"I love business. I love making deals and I just love the whole business world. That's why I'm always drawn to these types of roles."

He finds having that mechanical aptitude proves helpful when understanding shop floor issues.

"My mechanical knowledge really helps in talking with the maintenance guys, I think it;'s goes a long way with them that I can understand what they're saying.

"I know parts, I know how things work. When they're explaining it to me I can talk the lingo. If I wasn't able to communicate with them on that level, I don't if there would be as much of a respect there."

One of Ward's predecessors, Michael Rodyniuk, who took over as Wasaya CEO in 2015 and led them through corporate restructuring, embarked on a fleet renewal program, preached aggressive route expansion into Manitoba, and even studied the possibility of extending service into northeastern Ontario.

That sounds appealing but now is not the time, said Ward.

"I would love to be able to look at something like that but with COVID we've pulled everything back. Plans have drastically changed."

Ward said they'll use this period to get their internal house in order before entertaining the idea of expansion.

Wasaya has made some layoffs due to a shortage of work as many remote First Nation communities are either on lockdown or have limited entry, at the discretion of individual chiefs and councils. But Ward remains "very optimistic and hopeful that we'll pull out of COVID in a very good position."

"We're doing masks, we're doing temperature checks, hand sanitizers at the counters; we're taking all the precautions that we need to keep everyone safe," said Ward.

If the federal government is devising a strategy to extend financial aid to help the troubled aviation sector recover from the global pandemic, Ward is "absolutely in favour of it."

"There's some a hint something coming but we haven't received anything. I'm hopeful that government sees our airlines as essential services to the communities of the North."