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Inside Buffalo Airways’ suspension: what’s happening?

Buffalo Airways’ suspension is into its fourth week, with Transport Canada demanding more work on safety procedures before the airline can fly its own aircraft again.

Buffalo’s Mikey McBryan fears the suspension could run well into January. The airline had been chartering other companies’ aircraft to operate its passenger flights, but now says it can no longer afford to keep doing so.

Background: Buffalo postpones all passenger flights as suspension drags on

What has been happening inside Buffalo for the past few weeks, how could this be resolved, and how long can the airline keep going if a solution isn’t found soon?

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We asked Mikey McBryan and Sol Taboada, an executive with DTI Training – a specialist firm brought in by Buffalo Airways to help it meet Transport Canada’s demands.

What have you been doing to convince Transport Canada to let Buffalo fly again?

Sol Taboada: Transport Canada was mainly concerned that Buffalo flights were not going out technically or regulatorily compliant. All governments, everybody runs on paperwork. If the paperwork’s not right then even if you did it right, you didn’t. We noticed immediately there was an issue with that, so we introduced an idea of bringing a third party in as a short-term corrective action – a ‘gatekeeper’ to be there before every flight and make sure everything is documented. To us, that was a tremendous mitigating circumstance that should have forestalled the suspension. Transport Canada denied that.

My partner and I travelled to Yellowknife and started working on corrective action plans, trying to figure out exactly why they keep denying that. We were done on December 9, after which we had a little back-and-forth – a conversation – with Transport Canada on Friday, December 11 and then we thought we were done.

Yesterday, two weeks later, all the corrective action plans were declined again.

Here’s the problem: we are firm believers in Transport Canada’s process. We think it’s excellent and the entire world is following it. But the application of that process is sometimes a problem, and it is in this particular case in our opinion.

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There is a procedure which defines what Transport Canada wants to see in a corrective action plan. If any company uses proper process to produce that plan, the outcome should not be questioned by Transport Canada. A company should be allowed to proceed to see if their corrective action works.

The issue we’re having with Transport Canada is their declinations are based on opinions. Their opinion is no better than my opinion. I’ve got subject-matter experts on staff and their opinion is still no better than mine. We develop a plan – the plan should be allowed to operate, to see if it works. They’re not letting that happen.

A report in the Yellowknifer newspaper suggests ‘Buffalo’ Joe McBryan will “walk away” from the airline. Is that the case?

Mikey McBryan: The DC-3 is one of the most iconic aircraft of all time. And here we’ve got the highest-timed pilot, on the longest-running route of the longest-running operator. He is not retiring from flying the DC-3.

The feud between my father and Transport Canada has been well-documented. He is stepping away from the management system of the day-to-day operations, but he’s still a pilot, he still loves the DC-3 and you’ll see that in the future. But as of right now, he’s stepping away from the day-to-day operations.

To what extent is the dispute between Transport Canada and Buffalo Airways personal, when it comes to Joe?

Sol Taboada: In my opinion, it’s personal. I had never watched Buffalo’s TV show so I bought it and started watching it – and I’ve got to be honest with you, Buffalo Joe made Transport Canada look silly a lot of times. I don’t know if that’s part of it. I don’t know if it’s his arrogant attitude – and he did have an arrogant attitude.

You’re not going to eliminate him from being around, but I get the feeling that’s what Transport Canada wants. They don’t want him to be participating in the company at all.

To me, that’s judged by the items they keep bringing up on the corrective action plans we submit – that we didn’t go far enough on root cause, to point out specifics. They’re looking for a name. They’re looking for us to put the name “Joe McBryan”. And we’re not going to do that because it’s not one person, it’s a system.

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Buffalo understand that they’ve been operating on the old, ‘We’ve been doing it for 40 years and we get it done so why do we need this paperwork stuff?’ That’s a common theme among smaller aviation companies that haven’t got the documentation – and it’s a requirement. But Buffalo has come to that realization and has opened up everything. They’ve committed the resources, both financial and human, to change their culture. I have had no interference from Buffalo Joe and you’d think he’d be up my butt, since he’s actually paying me.

I have never seen Transport Canada single out an individual before. They’ve singled out systems and that’s what it should be – the system. But in this case, on three separate occasions, he specifically was brought up by an inspector to me.

Is Joe partly to blame for that relationship with Transport Canada?

Sol Taboada: Absolutely. Five or six years ago we were in Yellowknife doing workshops for NWT airports. We read an article about Joe and his fights with Transport Canada, and in that article he said he had spent over a million dollars on consultants and he still couldn’t get Transport Canada straightened out.

I wrote him a note offering to fix his system for free – if he put us on TV. He never answered me. The other day, he brought it up and said he should have taken us up on our offer.

Yes, there is an arrogance to him. There’s no question he has contributed. But that doesn’t mean anything – the process is still the process. Transport Canada held these plans for over two weeks without giving an assessment back to Buffalo. That’s two weeks you’ve let a hundred-odd people who work for Buffalo twist in the wind. It’s just not right.

How long can Buffalo Airways keep going if a solution isn’t found?

Mikey McBryan: That’s the million-dollar question, right there. I can honestly say that we are day-to-day. The suspension could be lifted at any point. It’s just that because we’re coming into Christmas and New Year’s, the office stuff comes to a grinding halt. We were hoping to be good to go basically every Monday, but this Christmas coming up – we’ve just got to make the right financial decisions, now, to keep the company viable and work with Transport Canada to get this all sorted out.

Sol Taboada: If I was the ownership of Buffalo, I probably would have laid off my people last week. But Joe’s got a different kind of heart, he’s paying his people. How long can he do it? I don’t know.

The fact Buffalo has had to cancel stuff – what are the odds they’re going to get 100 percent of those customers back? Because they’re going to have to get them from somebody else. Theoretically, Transport Canada is going to put them out of business.

Has the company contemplated layoffs?

Mikey McBryan: That’s the hardest thing. The news is just littered now with mining properties laying off people at Christmas. At Buffalo, we’re a family. The people that have been working here, especially the mechanics, have been here my entire life.

Laying off people is something we’re trying to stay away from as much as possible. The cargo is still flowing. Right now, it’s just the passengers we’ll have to give up until we get back.

Moose FM contacted Transport Canada for an update on Buffalo Airways’ suspension last week. Transport Canada said: “Transport Canada continues to work with Buffalo Airways in view to addressing the safety concerns identified.”

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