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One on One with Ken Bittle

One on One with Ken Bittle, President of Thunder Airlines  


October 28, 2008
By Darren Locke

Topics
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Ken Bittle, second from right, stands with his team at Thunder Airlines. From L to R: Brad Crocker, customer service and sales; Jim Holm, director of maintenance; Christa Calabrese, finance and HR director; Bob Mackie, vice president of Air Ambulance/operations manager (far right).

When did thunder airlines commence operations?
We commenced in October of 1994.

What locations did thunder airlines operate into initially, and how has your route network evolved?
Initially we were based in Thunder Bay, and over the years since then we have been in the following locations – we were pretty active in Pickle Lake, we ended up selling our assets to Wasaya. I can’t remember the year that was, but it was a few years ago,  and retreated from Pickle Lake. We have had a base in Dryden since 1999, and closed that base in 2007. We had an operation in Sioux Lookout, also closed in 2007, and for a short time we had a location in Red Lake, that was not even a year. I can’t remember the year that happened, and since 1999 we’ve had a location in Sudbury and also in Timmins, and those are still existing. So today we’re Thunder Bay, Sudbury, and Timmins.

DO YOU PLAN TO OPERATE INTO OTHER LOCATIONS?
We have a niche that sees us for the most part stay in Ontario. We’ve been particularly successful in Timmins, and have looked over the border into Quebec at times, but I don’t have anything on the books right at the moment that would say we’re going to start in there at a certain date, but being that close to the border we get a lot of work into Quebec. We do a lot of work into Manitoba as well from Northwestern Ontario, but to actually set up a operation in those locations, it’s unlikely at this point.

YOUR AIRLINE OPERATES PASSENGER CHARTERS, EXECUTIVE TRAVEL CHARTERS, AIR CARGO AND AIR AMBULANCE FLIGHTS. IS OPERATING IN DIVERSIFIED AREAS A BOOST TO THUNDER AIRLINES?
In addition to what you’ve mentioned we also offer scheduled service out of Timmins, daily scheduled service north, in addition to the charters and cargo and air ambulance. Northern Ontario geographically is a unique location unto itself, because the airstrips are all maintained more or less to the same degree, they’re about the same size, about 100 feet wide and 3,500 feet long, gravel strips. So we certainly have an expertise in that area. Minimal or no navigation aids. So that’s an active location for us, but from all of our locations we reach right down into the more densely populated areas every day, whether it’s London, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton. So we have a variety of expertise. The low-density areas, into the more typically high-density IFR areas, at least high-density as far as Canada is concerned.

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They do all fit together, and it’s complementary, especially out of the Timmins area, in that lots of charter customers also fly with us on our scheduled service and ship cargo on the sched service, and then they’ll charter cargo flights too. So that area particularly is very interesting, and works well.

YOU OPERATE FOUR KING AIR A100S, ONE CESSNA GRAND CARAVAN 208B, AND FOUR MITSUBISHI MU-2S. IS THIS THE FLEET MIX THUNDER AIRLINES STARTED WITH?
We started out with a Navajo, one Navajo. We actually had a 704 aeroplane, a Metro, and some King Airs. The Metro was on a specific contract for a mine, and we continued that until the mine was decommissioned and stopped producing. The airplane was leased from another company, and we returned it to them. And then over the years, in 1999 our company bought out a competing company, and that’s where we ended up with a fleet of Mitsubishis. We had a couple of PC-12s at about the same time that we had for a year or two, and at this point we’ve settled on the fleet we have right now.

YOU SIGNED A CONTRACT MORE THAN A YEAR AGO WITH THE NORTHERN ONTARIO SCHOOL OF MEDICINE TO PROVIDE WEEKLY CHARTER TRANSPORT BETWEEN SUDBURY AND THUNDER BAY. WILL THIS CONTRACT BE OF MAJOR BENEFIT TO YOUR AIRLINE?
It was renewed this year, we’ve had it for over a year, about a year-and-a-half, and it was renewed in 2008. It’s not a major component of our work, it’s a very important part, but they’re not our main customer by any means. They’re one of many customers we have, but they just happen to want to have a specific carrier and a contract with that carrier, and so we were able to enter into that contract with them. 

THE MITSUBISHI MU-2 IS A UNIQUE AIRCRAFT FOR A CANADIAN AIRLINE. HAS THUNDER AIRLINES FOUND IT TO BE A  RELIABLE AIRCRAFT AND A GOOD PERFORMER COMPARED TO OTHER TYPES?
It’s much faster of course, I’m not sure if everybody knows that. Yes, it’s much quicker. It’s a high-wing lower fuselage aircraft, so for medical services, loading of passengers, patients on stretchers, it’s much simpler and better for everyone involved, the patient foremost. You don’t have to kind of stand them on their head to get up into the aircraft, it has a great capacity for that. We’ve had extremely good success with the airplane, both from a reliability point of view, and performance, economic and general performance numbers. And we credit that mainly to the training that we do on the airplane. It’s a discipline airplane, it’s a numbers airplane, so you do not fly that airplane unless you’re extremely well-trained. So somebody will come in no matter what experience they have, and sit in the right seat for at least four months, and usually longer. And again it doesn’t matter if they were a captain on some other aircraft or not. So it’s not 50 or 100 hours and then you go left seat, and its all part of our training program on it. Every person goes to SimCom in Florida to do the simulator training there for that aircraft, and as a result we’ve had extremely good, reliable service from it.

It has an advantage (medevac loading) over anything out there in that respect. Now some people would say  it’s higher in maintenance, and if you look at per-hour costs of maintenance, labour, and parts it is higher; however you go a lot more miles for that. So when you factor back in the miles, it’s extremely competitive with anything and beats most other aircraft that would go at that speed. It’s quicker then a PC-12, it’s quicker then a 200, and yet it has the operating costs down lower. It’s been good for us. It is a training airplane, though – it is an airplane that needs intense, disciplined training.

DOES OPERATING INTO SMALLER COMMUNITIES POSE ADDITIONAL CHALLENGES, AS OPPOSED TO LARGER COMMUNITIES?
Yes,  smaller communities are typically in this area gravel strips, so the airplane, there’s a lot of gravel markings on it, and it’s very difficult to keep the airplane in like-new condition as far as paint. So the smaller communities, that means gravel. In most of the remote communities … there are minimal navigation aids, minimal services on the ground. We normally can get a plug-in for heat, we need it, but we carry our own de-icing equipment with us and satellite phones for flight-following and communication, because you can’t always access anywhere with a phone. So yeah, I wouldn’t say its any worse, it’s just different, and it’s what we’re used to, as opposed to flying into a larger centre where everything may be available. It’s not available, but then you don’t taxi as far either.     

HOW CRITICAL IS AIR TRAVEL TO THE REMOTE COMMUNITIES?
It’s totally critical, because there are about 40 communities in Northern Ontario that have no road access, so everything in and out of those communities other then a few weeks into some of them in the winter where they have winter roads, everything goes by air.

WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE FUTURE FOR THUNDER AIRLINES?
I think that probably, on the scheduled passenger service, it would hold a larger gauge of aircraft, because we’ve pretty much maxed out the King Airs on that route. So we would see something larger in that area. And one of our large customers here is a company called “ORNGE,” which is really the Ministry of Health air ambulance group, so whatever they have planned for the future on the air ambulance side as far as requirements, the standards they expect for speed and distance and range and that kind of thing, we would follow what they’re looking for. They have some interesting things that they’re doing. We don’t quite know exactly what their plans are going forward, so as that becomes clear then we would respond to their needs.

DO YOU FEEL YOU HAVE A UNIQUE GROUP OF PEOPLE AT THUNDER AIRLINES?
Our staff is excellent. We have a core group, and we have a lot of turnover of flight crew because our typical recruiter knocking at our door for our crew is Jazz, Air Canada Jazz. I think they like the twin-engine turbine time that our guys and girls pick up, they like the combination of North and South (flight experience). They know how to fly, our guys know how to fly, they’re not autopilot pushers. And so on one hand we’re proud of that, but on the other hand it means that we’re constantly transitioning staff, flight crew. That’s a burden, but we look at it and we say that we have developed a system to handle that, it’s all called “training.” The core group revolves around that, and our engineering staff is long-term, all of them, and very experienced on the aircraft we have which makes life much easier for the upper management, me mainly. So if we have an indication of a problem somewhere, the team knows exactly what to do, they know how to react to it. If we have a flat tire in a location, to go and fix it, people know, they have a lot of experience in handling that kind of situation. That’s been developed over the years in-house.

Rather then fight it (flight crew moving up within the airline industry to larger aircraft), we decided quite a few years ago that we would work with it, because there is no amount of money that we can offer that will keep people here if the keys of a larger airplane are dangled in front of them. So rather then try and bemoan that fact, we work with it and accept it. The goal here is to bring people in, get their time, and that when they leave we can shake their hand and say “job well done, good luck, and talk to us when you’re in town again.”            

It’s a unique team, it’s people who like the North, and in Timmins particularly because we offer scheduled service, and we do it right out of our hangar, we’re not in a terminal, we have our own little waiting lounge, our staff there know the customers, they know them by name, they see them frequently. There have developed some interesting bonds and relationships there that are unique, and unique to a small company as well. A large airline, you just can’t have that kind of contact, and you don’t expect it. But in a smaller company it just goes with the territory. So we enjoy that, because it makes all our staff feel like they’re responding directly to people’s needs, and that works out well.