General aviation

Will ‘green shoots’ lead to a transformed aviation industry?


“There’s lots of opportunity to rebuild our world,” says CEO of Iskwew Air

A Pacific Coastal Beech 1900C on the ground at Vancouver International Airport February 24, 2020 (photo: Brett Ballah).

The British Columbia Aviation Council said Monday it is starting to see small ‘green shoots’ of regrowth in the province’s aviation sector, after the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s an extremely ugly bottom for our industry but at least we appear to be there,” the council said Monday in a note to members. “Some small grass shoots have just started to appear. The big question is how fast will they grow.”

BCAC member Pacific Coastal, the third-busiest airline at Vancouver International Airport when it suspended operations March 25, announced the same day it would restart limited service on June 1.

“We are pleased to confirm that we will be resuming scheduled service on June 1, 2020,” the carrier said on its website.

“Our intention is to help provide air service for essential service workers, move important goods and cargo, provide access for customers who need to travel for various medical appointments (unrelated to COVID-19) and continue to offer remote communities access to the essential service of air travel should they require it.”


BCAC board member Teara Fraser, chief executive of Vancouver International-based Iskwew Air, said the pandemic set her airline back just as it was hitting its stride.

“We were excited really to move into our first full season,” said Fraser.

Teara Fraser (left) inspects her Piper Navajo Chieftain with her uncle, Jumbo Fraser (photo: Iskwew Air).

Iskwew (pronounced ISS-KWAY-YO) is the first airline owned by Indigenous women, with a goal of connecting people with the land and opening up B.C., particularly small and remote communities, to a wider public.

“We had lots of work booked through the spring and summer and fall,” said Fraser. When COVID-19 hit, the bottom fell out.

“It’s completely evaporated, all of it, with really no understanding or timing on when people are going to feel safe to take an aircraft.

“It’s hard, there’s no question about that,” she said. “It’s hard.”

“The Indigenous tourism industry is at risk of collapsing,” said Fraser.

These are businesses, many of them isolated from the big cities, that didn’t have a lot of money to begin with, and now they’re at risk of losing their entire 2020 tourist season.

“I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the last six weeks looking to support in particular Indigenous women led businesses,” said Fraser. “The economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses is huge. And I’ve been working my little guts out, actually, trying to do what I can to support other Indigenous women entrepreneurs because I know how hard they’ve worked to bring their businesses to life and how important it is that they keep operating.”

Iskwew Air CEO Teara Fraser (photo: Twitter/@tearafraser).

At the heart of Fraser’s concern is access to small and remote communities left even more isolated by the pandemic.

“Small air operators are critical to the ecosystem,” said Fraser. “The small operators work in highly regulated, capital intensive industry with substantial fixed costs and some or many of them may not survive this crisis.”

Tourism, a vital lifeline in many communities, has all but vanished, according to a new report issued Monday by the World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations.

“Tourism has been the hardest hit of all the major sectors as countries lockdown and people stay at home,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili in a statement Monday. “UNWTO calls on governments to work together to coordinate the easing and lifting of restrictions in a timely and responsible manner, when it is deemed safe to do so. Tourism is a lifeline to millions, especially in the developing world. Opening the world up to tourism again will save jobs, protect livelihoods and enable our sector to resume its vital role in driving sustainable development.”

For Iskwew, survival has meant offering essential services to anyone who might need them, even though Fraser admits there hasn’t been much need to date.

“I’m committed to persevering,” she said.

“Let’s not return to normal… There’s lots of opportunity to rebuild our world.”

Teara Fraser, CEO of Iskwew Air

Fraser is particularly hoping small operators, the ones who form the backbone of air access to hundreds of small communities across the country, are supported through the pandemic, and not left to the mercy of a market that tends to favour the bigger players. For example, businesses with revenues of more than $300 million were given a new backstop by the federal government Monday, while Iskwew had a hard time qualifying for the most basic pandemic supports.

“Let’s not return to normal,” she said. “I hope that our communities, specifically our remote and Indigenous communities, get the supports that they need moving ahead, and aviation is a big part of that.

“Things are complex right now, but they’re also in some ways been made clear and simple. So there’s lots of opportunity to rebuild our world.”