Air Creebec’s President Albert Diamond was Recently featured on RDI’s Circuit PME, a French-language television show about small business. Diamond presented Air Creebec quite well to the French speaking population. It was something that Diamond said he was glad to do.
The Nation: You were on Circuit PME. How did it feel?
Albert Diamond: Yes, Circuit PME features small to medium businesses. They target those types of companies. First of all we’ve been trying to get programs like that because we can really target some of the non-Native customers we have. This is true for Val d’Or,
Amos, Chibougamau and Roberval. When you see the traffic from those communities rise we don’t have to increase rates further north. So you offset the rates because you are making money on the southern parts of your route. Four years ago most of our revenues were in Ontario and most of those travelers were non-Natives. We looked at Quebec and most of the revenues there came from Cree sources. So we said we should be doing what we are doing in Ontario. We had to sit down and really look at that. How do we do that? If you remember when we had a route out of Rouyn Noranda we worked and talked with the Chamber of Commerce and the town council. We did the same thing with Amos and Val d’Or. The next thing you knew these guys started flying with us. The funny thing about it is the businessmen that fly with us used to have the same complaints we did. That all the money went to the big companies down south. They told us that we were from the north and from our région so we’ll support you. That’s a result of getting involved with the Chambers of Commerce.
Circuit PME says it wanted to demystify Native businesses. When you watched the segment they did on you and Air Creebec do you think they achieved that?
Yeah, I was hoping they would show Native people manage their businesses a little differently. Their objectives are different. For instance when they showed that segment when the little girl had to travel. A lot of people don’t understand there are Crees who have to spend a lot of time in hospitals in the south and this costs a lot of money. Parents and friends can’t be there with them. The Board of Directors, who are all Cree at Air Creebec, has told me that if we can help them out for time to time, we’ll allow you to do it. So we do and it’s the same thing with fundraising that goes on in the Cree communities. They ask for money and we say no, we aren’t going to give you money. We will give you free tickets you can use as prizes. Almost everybody knows that now that this is our policy. They get these tickets and in some cases people raise $2-5,000. The tickets cost them nothing and it’s worthwhile.
So you see Air Creebec as someone who helps out the communities?
Yep, and that comes from an all Cree board of directors, who come from the communities. They see it. We don’t say yes to everything. We can’t but last year a report showed we gave about $110,000 in free tickets. When you look at the money it has generated in fundraising it is about $300,000. I think the Board and the management understand that we have to be good corporate citizens and we have to help out. We try to do that.
Air Creebec has had problems in the past and seems to have gotten past that to a new, more profitable, era. What’s next for Air Creebec?
Well, the whole aviation industry changed after September. It affected us too but with Air Creebec we have people who support us. It’s their company and that’s what we try to tell them: You own us. I still get some people who tell me that the cost is too high to fly with us. I guess our next thing is to minimize any increases in fares and rates. I think we are doing that. In the past three years some of the airlines have increased their rates and fares three times more than we did. That comes from the fact we have Crees on the board making those decisions. We go to them at the start of our fiscal year in January and when we do the budget they set the increase at the minimum. Last year it was a 5 per cent in total while in the industry some of the increases were as high as 20 per cent. That’s the thing about Crees owning their own airline. You can do things like that and I think it’s good for the Crees. I don’t disagree with the fact it costs a lot of money to fly. When you look at the amount of passengers we have if we were double that number we’d be able to offer lower and better fares. If fact, even now the board is asking me if it’s possible to have specials. I’ve said yes, we’ve had a number of years where we’ve showed a profit. We’re looking at it. That’s the next thing you can say we do is to have those special rates and fares.
As far as what we are doing in the future, with the Agreement that has been signed there is going to be work with Hydro-Quebec and certainly we will get a far share. I doubt we’ll get everything but we will get extra work because of that project. We’ve certainly set ourselves up for it. We brought a charter aircraft in October and it’s been busy. The Cree organizers have certainly supported us with that. We said if that sector continues to take off the way it has we might even have to get another one.
Charters and the contracts that go with charters are really good because we get paid a steady amount per month whereas scheduled flights go up and down depending on the traffic you have. Charters help you out a lot when you have the contracts. We are starting to get some contracts from the mines and some of the other companies in the Cree territory. One of our best customers in this is Telebec. They charter us all the time.
As far as new routes are concerned I don’t know if we can look at expanding unless some of the other airlines get into difficulties. You look at some of the airlines that serve the Lac St. Jean area, Quebec and the North Shore. I don’t know what will happen to them if they get into financial trouble. We’ll look at it and see if it is worthwhile to go there when and if it happens.
We have an agreement with Air Canada and Air Nova. It helps us and doesn’t help us because it restricts what we can and can’t do. It helps us in the sense that we have joint fares that are a savings for our passengers. If a passenger wants to go from Waskaganish to Toronto they don’t have to buy a ticket to Montreal and then another from Montreal to Toronto. He gets a reduced fare. That helps us but on the other hand we can’t just go and put a route in wherever we want. They’ll say wait we’re doing it or Air Nova is doing it. Overall it helps us more than it harms us. We have regular meetings with them and they’ll say that’s sounds like a good idea, why don’t you do it.
So, you’re saying Air Creebec’s about customer satisfaction?
That’s what we have been concentrating on for the past three years. One of the things that is going to happen soon and we’re hoping for the middle of March is being able to buy your ticket electronically online. We said everyone’s doing it why shouldn’t we be able to do it? We have some problems because some of our communities don’t have internet access but I think we have to do that to remain competitive and stay in the game.
It’s the same thing with charter service; we’ve been concentrating on customer service. I had a good experience with the chiefs, the Grand Chief and the Grand Council over the last couple of months with all of the flying they have had to do. They were very happy with the service but we’re still looking at what we can do better.
Do you want a really good meal on that flight? We’ll arrange it for you. You want pizza and beer, we’ll arrange it. I think that’s going to happen with the numbers I’m seeing from that charter aircraft. Our board of directors had said in 2002 we’re not buying any more aircraft. The climate has changed though and we might, have to in June to keep up with the demand and the activity that’ll come up with the start of the HQ Eastmain project. We have to position ourselves because Hydro-Quebec wants to start as soon as possible. You have to look at the contractors and the companies who are going to be in there. We want that charter work. They’re going to be bringing people in and out and while some of those guys will be traveling on HQ aircraft we think there will be a lot of charter work there.
Then there are the funds that the Crees will be getting to develop the communities. Anytime that happens you see an influx of people going into the communities. It can be engineers, cost estimators, contractors and whatever. We notice it because these people travel by Air Creebec so we know we have to be ready for that. When you look at the activity that will happen over the next five years it could happen really soon but what we are trying to do is to have the aircraft ready for when it happens so we beat out the competitors.
In the past we’ve had to tell people we didn’t have the aircraft because they were all flying. What we’ve learnt since we have had the charter aircraft is that we can say we have the plane right here and we can be there in an hour. When you can do that price becomes secondary. You can be there sooner than your competitor. Then there’s price. We’ve done things like in one day when we had a charter for the Cree School Board and the Grand Council. We organized it so they saved money on the ferry charges, that’s when no one’s in the airplanes. They shared the ferry charges and it brings the price down. We’re really monitoring it. The Board said that we should really look at who’s flying and when. Right now it’s the Cree organizations that really, really support us. After all it’s their airline and these guys are doing it. Right now we’re looking at ways we can save them a little bit of money like in the ferry charges. If this keeps up in June I might be going to the board and saying we might have to look at getting another aircraft. Not right away but towards the end of the year like in December.
We have to position ourselves for the peak of the project in 2005 so that means in 2003 to maximize the Cree and non-Cree contracts.
It’s a brighter future for Air Creebec?
Yes, weathering 2001 and watching all these other airlines go bankrupt we analyzed that and looked at how we survived. Some of the things we did right after that helped. When you look at it though some of the things we did in the past two years helped even more. I know we talked about getting a second Dash 8. We kept delaying it because the price was too high.
When September 11 happened prices on aircraft went down like you wouldn’t believe. We knew our revenues were going to go down and we might even have a loss but we told the board if we were going to buy we had to do it now because the price was so good. It might take us until next year to show it will make money for us. Those guys said let’s do it. Some of the guys in the aviation business thought we were nuts buying a plane right now when all the traffic is going down. The thing though it is timing too. You say the prices went down and we put the Dash 8 in Ontario where the people were just waiting for it. They told us they would rather fly with the Dash 8. Part of it is luck and part of it is knowing your customers. The board asked if we had the money and I said yes, we had been putting aside money to buy. Now it looks terrific. You think about it. Some of the events outside of the territory will dictate what you do but even though we said it might take a while to show this is a good decision it didn’t take that long. Right away the customer reaction was great. Before August the best price we could find for a Dash 8 was $4.6 million. We brought ours for $3 million. That’s how much it dropped.
That’s over 25 per cent savings.
Exactly. We spent $600,000 making modifications and changing the seats the price was so good. When you look at the airplane it’s an eight-year-old airplane but with the modifications it looks new. It’s a good aircraft. It’s funny, sometimes you buy an aircraft that has been flying for a number of years, and it’s better than a new one. It’s like a car. If you buy a new one you sometimes get a lemon. Sometimes a used one fixed up will be the better deal in the long run. The end result though was that everyone was happy, the passengers and us.
The other thing is now we can switch aircraft depending on the loads we have to carry. It makes us more flexible and that makes a difference.
What’s the last thing you would like to say to your customers?
I realize there are still a lot of things that we could do to improve service. We’re working on it. I really think that they stayed with us through the bad times and we remember that. We’ve made that decision to constantly improve our service and we can get people to where they are going safely and on time.