A Bearskin Metroliner encounters a gravel surface at one of the carrier’s remote destinations.
Bearskin Airlines began last year with a major directional change. On Jan. 1, 2018, parent company Exchange Income Corporation (EIC) chose to merge the carrier with another EIC-owned airline, Perimeter Aviation. While Bearskin no longer exists as a separate legal entity, EIC has opted to continue using its recognized brand name and logo as part of the Perimeter operation and has kept the pilots as well as the aircraft of the two carriers separate.
“It was called a merger, but it felt more like a takeover” remarked Capt. Kim Steingass, the Bearskin Master Executive Council (MEC) chair, who acknowledged that he misses the old Bearskin family vibe. The airline’s reservations, payroll, and other administrative functions are now handled by Perimeter. Late last year, Bearskin pilots were even compelled to adopt the same standard operating procedures Perimeter pilots use. “The reality is that we work for a new employer,” Steingass said.
The Bearskin MEC chair pointed out that ALPA attorneys have recently been coordinating with the Canada Industrial Relations Board to discuss how and when the two pilot groups will be merged. The handling of this process is of particular concern because Perimeter’s pilot ranks and fleet size are approximately three times larger than that of Bearskin’s. In addition, there could be representational ramifications as Perimeter pilots are members of a Canadian union, Unifor, and would have the majority vote.
Meanwhile, Bearskin continues to wrestle with pilot attrition. “Our first officers are hired with anywhere from 250 to 700 hours, and they leave before they even have the qualifications for an airline transport licence or a captain upgrade,” said Steingass, who added that many pilots from Canada’s smaller carriers are moving onto larger airlines for growth opportunities and higher pay.
To help find new pilot candidates, Bearskin participates in the Jazz Aviation Pathways Program (Jazz APP), which is affiliated with aviation colleges, flight schools, and universities throughout the country. Jazz APP places new pilots at participating carriers, offering them opportunities to flow up to Jazz and, eventually, Air Canada, as they build time and seniority.
Bearskin’s veteran pilots are also leaving the Thunder Bay, Ont.-based airline. “We recently lost five captains in six weeks, and our captain list isn’t that long,” Steingass noted. As Bearskin has fewer than 50 pilots, the MEC officers make up the entire union leadership and committee structure for the pilot group (as this issue of Air Line Pilot went to press). Fortunately, the pilots’ collective agreement doesn’t expire until Dec. 31, 2020.
Fleet size has remained virtually consistent, although the carrier lost one of its 11 Metroliners in 2018 due to a mechanical issue. However, Bearskin has acquired a replacement from EIC-owned PAL Airlines (formerly Provincial), which should be delivered in six months. In addition, Bearskin’s route structure hasn’t changed significantly, with 11 scheduled destinations in Ontario and Winnipeg, Man.
Bearskin is named after Bearskin Lake, Ont., and was founded in July 1963. It began operations as an air taxi service using float-equipped aircraft. The company underwent several ownership changes and in 1977 flew its first scheduled flights, transporting passengers between Big Trout Lake, Ont., and Sioux Lookout, Ont. The following year, Bearskin expanded its operation to include Thunder Bay.
The Ontario government soon launched an extensive airfield construction program throughout the province’s remote First Nations communities, and Bearskin took advantage, expanding its operation to link with more than 20 locations. That total would eventually double, although in 2003 Bearskin sold assets and transferred a large portion of its northern scheduled-passenger service to Wasaya Airways.
EIC purchased Bearskin in 2011 for $32.5 million. In addition to Bearskin, PAL, and Perimeter, EIC owns Calm Air and Keewatin Air and holds a large stake in Wasaya.