Things are starting to look up at Air Creebec.
More natives have been hired. The management team has been restructured and perhaps most importantly, the Cree Nation’s airline company is making a profit for the first time in four and a half years.
“AIR CREEBEC HAS been on the hot seat for quite a long time, and it deserved to be,” said the airline’s president, Albert Diamond, in an interview with The Nation.
“But now things are starting to turn around. Everyone is pulling together to make this airline work.”
As of the end of June this year, Air Creebec was $220,000 in the black, said Diamond. Also for the first time since its creation, the airline made money during the winter months.
“Every year, it lost money during January, February and March because of the access roads which are open at that time. But this year, we showed a profit in March.”
The airline, whose fiscal year runs from January to December, was expected to only cover its operating losses up until the end of August and start making money only in September. This year, the losses were covered by June.
“All we need is until the end of 1995 and then I see no reason why Air Creebec won’t be making $2-3 million net profit a year,” said Diamond. “We looked at the figures and couldn’t believe it, but it’s true.”
The beginings of this turnaround can be credited to several major changes at the company within the last year and a half, said Diamond. The changes include cutting of employees, gaining new contracts, restructuring the management team and involving the Board of Compensation in decision-making on a much more regular basis.
“We started downsizing in June 1993. A lot of people had to be laid off, and it was a hard time for people, because employees were all looking over their back and wondering who was next,”said Diamond.
“And at that time, it was losing money
every year, so people were very discouraged and nobody wanted anything to do with Air Creebec.”
Diamond said restructuring the management team was another of the major changes. Two years ago, the management style was somewhat authoritarian, secretive and disorganized, said Diamond. “The VP at the time ran the company like a one-man show. The management was not disclosing the full financial picture to the Board of Compensation and the Board was not meeting enough, so Air Creebec was kind of left a bit too much on its own.”
Diamond says he now works by full disclosure to the Board. “We have to tell the Board everything, Not just the good stuff.”
For the Cree Nation, perhaps one of the most important changes is the rising level of Cree employment at the airline.
Since 1992, native employment at Air Creebec has risen from 16 to 27 percent, according to Human Resources manager Josée Falvo. Crees are working in all areas of the airline’s business. From new pilots Danny Pash, Ernie Sutherland, Terry McLeod and Richard Lebizay to stewardess Marina Shisheesh and 42 other natives working in everything from ticketing to airplane maintenance and accounting.
Native employment has become a priority. But this is only a recent development, added Josée Falvo.
“Everyone was so busy trying to be on budget, it [native employment] didn’t seem so important before. We were on the hot seat and trying to get off. No one had time. And it wasn’t a priority.”
While the employment picture for Crees is improving, the ratio is still 141 non-natives to 47 natives. That won’t be changing overnight.
“One of the basic problems is re-location,” Falvo said. “Crees generally don’t want to move to Val d’Or away from their families. It’s lonely, they have to make new friends and it’s very hard on families.”
Another big reason is the salary levels at Air Creebec are somewhat paltry compared to the Cree civil service.
Salaries at Air Creebec have been frozen for the past three years. Also, while $27-30,000 is reasonable for the airline business, it’s not very tempting when Crees can make $40,000 working for a Cree entity in the communities.
In the long run, more Crees could be working for Air Creebec if it moves more of its operations on to Cree land, said Alfred Loon, who is in charge of Administration and Co-ordination for CreeCo.
“It is the wish of the Cree people that Cree businesses be re-located as much as possible to the communities,” said Loon. “So we are now doing a study to determine to what extent it is possible to totally or partially re-locate the different CreeCo. businesses.”
Loon said such a move will be a boost to Cree employment because non-natives currently working for different Cree companies won’t pack up and move to the communities.
The Cree Regional Authority has already moved to Nemaska. CreeCo. and the Board of Compensation will be moved to Ouje-Bougoumou by 1995. As for Air Creebec, while the airplane hanger and maintenance operations must remain in Val d’Or (due to connecting flights), administration and even ticketing, and management could potentially be moved.