Humanitarian work prepared R1 Airlines Ltd to jump into action during Fort McMurray fire
Kristine Owram | June 7, 2016 5:18 PM ETMore from Kristine Owram | @KristineOwram
Several airlines offered evacuation flights to workers and residents who had fled to the oilsands camps north of Fort McMurray when a massive, out-of-control wildfire hit the city with virtually no warning in May.
One of those airlines was R1 Airlines Ltd., a little-known charter service. Although its work was overshadowed by bigger commercial carriers such as WestJet Airlines Ltd., R1’s crews were far more familiar with the unpredictable nature of a disaster zone after years of humanitarian work in dangerous locales such as Afghanistan and Haiti.
Based in Calgary, R1 had established itself as one of several charter airlines that ferry workers to and from the oilpatch. But the company’s management knew that resource-sector work is cyclical and about 10 years ago decided to diversify.
“(We were) looking for some growth opportunities internationally, taking the formula we’d built here and plugging it somewhere else in the world, and the humanitarian work just seemed like a good fit for us,” said Matt Lomas, R1’s general manager.
R1, which dubs itself “a regional airline with a global mentality,” flies Bombardier Inc.’s Dash 8 and CRJ aircraft. The Dash 8 in particular is a “very versatile, robust aircraft” that can operate in areas that don’t have the infrastructure to support larger planes, Lomas said.
But more importantly, R1’s crew has the extensive experience required by humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations.
“They’re looking for very experienced people for those operations because they are remote and because it’s challenging work,” Lomas said. “It’s actually very similar requirements to what you need to fly for some of the larger multinational oil and gas companies.”
The airline’s longest contract was during the war in Afghanistan, where it had up to three aircraft moving aid workers and supplies around the country for more than six years.
R1 only has 15 aircraft in its fleet, but its parent company, aviation-services firm Avmax Group Inc., has approximately 300 planes that can be deployed on short notice.
This makes it easy for R1 to respond quickly when disaster strikes, such as when a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010.
“With Haiti, Avmax was able to supply us with an aircraft in the humanitarian organization’s livery, with the equipment that was required for the country, all within a matter of days,” Lomas said.
“It’s actually a huge advantage to us: we don’t have to carry the additional overhead of having aircraft sitting around when they’re not working, and then when we do need them we can get them on very short notice.”
This extra on-call capacity also helped R1 during the Fort McMurray fire. The airline had scaled back its operations in response to the oilpatch slowdown, and had to act fast, said Lanny Benoit, the airline’s vice-president of operations.
“We did approximately 15 to 25 flights on those first couple days, but we were also providing 24-hour coverage with two of our airplanes on standby,” he said, adding that R1 was ready to medevac casualties if necessary.
Benoit, an experienced pilot who flew some of the evacuation flights, said the wildfire was a dangerous situation even for R1’s seasoned crew.
“We’re all trained to the highest standard, but when you’re put in these type of conditions, it’s very, very challenging,” he said. “But I was so confident in our crews because they’ve been trained for this, they’ve been in this environment before and … they went right into that survival mode.”
Benoit estimates that R1 lost more than 60 per cent of its business when oil prices collapsed, and the company is now working to diversify further, with charters to West Coast fishing lodges and even a partnership in Dubai.
R1 also sees an opportunity to help move people back into Fort McMurray and the oilsands camps as they gradually get repopulated.
“This week, we’re working with the insurance companies going up there so they can look at the damage,” Benoit said. “We’re also working with some of the building contractors because somebody’s going to have to rebuild these homes.”
R1 is already working with its existing oilsands clients, including Shell Canada Ltd. and Imperial Oil Ltd., to help get their operations up and running again.
“We’re in talks with them every day,” Benoit said. “This isn’t going to fix itself in months; you’re talking years.”