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Wasaya Airways eyeballs northeast expansion

Thunder Bay air carrier says Sudbury, Sault, Timmins in long-range plans
Wasaya Dash 8
Wasaya Airways Dash 8

Could Dash 8 service between Sudbury and Thunder Bay become a reality someday soon?

“In a word, ‘yes,’” responded Michael Rodyniuk, CEO of Wasaya Airways, who said the Thunder Bay-headquartered regional air carrier is keen to expand service into northeastern Ontario.

“As the opportunity allows us to, it is definitely on our radar and we’re monitoring the market very closely. It’s much more of a question of when as opposed to if.”

The First Nations-owned carrier recently announced the launch of double-daily flights between Winnipeg and the northwestern Ontario communities of Sioux Lookout, Sandy Lake First Nation and Pikangikum First Nation, scheduled to begin Aug. 14.

But running scheduled east-west service out of Thunder Bay to cities in the northeast is definitely in their long-range plans, confirmed Rodyniuk, who declined to get into specifics on flight frequency and timeframe.

He said the airline has been doing its market research and is procuring more Dash 8 aircraft.

“Our long-term strategy does encompass all of Ontario, and it moves east and west out of Ontario.”

Strengthening their new service into Winnipeg remains a current priority for now but they’ve evaluated making market entries into northern Manitoba, the Far North, and northeastern Ontario as well.

“We’ve looked at it a lot and see great potential in that area,” said Rodyniuk, when asked if Northern Ontario could support competition with Bearskin Airlines on the pan-Northern east-west route.

Wasaya, which is owned by 12 Cree and Oji-Cree communities in northwestern Ontario, runs a fleet of 21 Cessna Caravan, Beechcraft 1900, Hawker Siddeley 748, Pilatus PC-12, and Dash 8 passenger and cargo aircraft.

The once-debt-ridden and safety-challenged carrier emerged from corporate restructuring in 2016.

Rodyniuk was hired to clean up many internal issues and make the 27-year-old airline safer and profitable, and provide more opportunity for First Nation peoples to participate.

That means solidifying its core operations in the northwest first before expanding outward, he said.

“We’ve had so many Manitoba communities contact us saying, please start flying here because the level of service that we’re experiencing here is not very good.

“We’ve taken that to heart and talked with chiefs and councils and we believe there is further opportunity in that market. But I also see some really high yields on the eastern traffic coming out of Thunder Bay which certainly begs a second look.”

Rodyniuk confirmed that he’s received expressions of interest from First Nations in the northeast, particularly the Cree communities.

He said they’ve run some initial numbers on two-way daily passenger runs and cargo tonnage into the Manitoba communities of Thompson, Churchill, and even further north into Rankin Inlet.

“We’ve also done the same going east out of Thunder Bay into Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, and literally working our way up the James Bay and Hudson Bay coasts, both on the west and east sides. There are some great opportunities pushing into Québec.

“But all of that is a long time away before we are able to push on.”

Prior to Rodyniuk’s arrival in 2015, Wasaya tried unsuccessfully years ago to extend service to the northeast through the Timmins airport.

But it was “executed poorly on implementation,” he said, with only one dedicated Pilatus PC-12 aircraft and not a lot of promotion or advertising behind it.

“It was pretty much doomed to fail,” he said. “If we were to move into that market we would have a substantial push on both the marketing side and making certain we have key customers identified and locked in for air service.”

Rodyniuk said they prefer not to enter new markets without the proper supports in place with available aircraft and crews.

They favour a disciplined approach to launching new services and do so in a very methodical way “that allows for a profitable return to our investors pretty quickly.”

He said Wasaya’s strategic plans operate on a 12-month, 24-month and 36-month template that allows them the flexibility to fill a market need as opportunities pop up.

The real beauty of the airline business, he said, is having mobile assets that can quickly be transferred to more profitable routes. “If you're not making money in one market you can literally pick them up and the next day be in a market that can be producing profit for you.”

The Wasaya fleet will grow by one, to 22, when the twice-daily service to Winnipeg begins in mid-August with a new Beechcraft on duty.

Rodyniuk confirmed that more aircraft are on order, particularly larger gauge aircraft for passenger and cargo runs.

Over the next five years, Wasaya plans to bring 10 additional Dash 8s into service to meet anticipated market demand and expansion.

“If market opportunities present themselves, we have the capacity to be able to accelerate that.”

Wasaya has the ability to lease aircraft through established partnerships with Air Canada and Chorus Aviation, a Halifax holding company.

“Leasing aircraft is the most efficient way to launch into new markets,” Rodyniuk said.

Chorus acquired Voyageur Aviation, a North Bay charter and refurbishment company, in 2015 and recently converted one of Wasaya’s Dash 8 passenger aircraft into a dedicated package freighter.

“They do incredibly good work and we plan on doing a lot more business with them,” Rodyniuk said.

“They’ve got aircraft available for us to pick up quickly and move them into our fleet.”

Wasaya also recently picked up two surplus Beech 1900 aircraft from a Labrador airline, Air Borealis.

Rodyniuk said he’s been closely monitoring troubling media reports involving Exchange Income Corporation (EIC), the Winnipeg parent company that purchased Bearskin Airlines in 2010.

Marc Cohides, a high-profile U.S. investor, is targeting EIC in his short-selling campaign, alleging that the corporation is paying its investors dividends that it can’t afford and could go insolvent if it doesn’t change its ways.

He further contends that Wasaya is outperforming them on service and comfort on its Ontario-to-Manitoba routes.

“We’re watching it very carefully,” said Rodyniuk, a former vice-president and COO of EIC’s aviation arm. “Our ownership communities don’t want to see any community left without any air service.”

But ultimately Rodyniuk said the reports seem to revolve around the assertions of one individual – “unsubstantiated, largely” – that could be problematic for any business, if true.

“We’re much more focused on staying in our lane and running our race.”