The Bear in the Air
By Michelle Collins | January 31, 2002
Bearskin Airlines President Harvey Friesen remembers the days of home-generated electricity and inadequate communications. "We had no radio, no TV; we generated our own electricity. Those times were very difficult because a lot of time was spent just surviving, never mind running a business," says Friesen. The former pilot also recalls when no landing strips existed for the planes. This meant landing the small carriers on floats in the summer and skis in the winter.
That was 1963. Today, Bearskin planes offer nearly 200 daily flights to 37 destinations throughout Northern Ontario and Manitoba. The Bearskin fleet, situated in Sioux Lookout, Ont., is still made up of small planes, the biggest seating 19 passengers.
Grow big or stay small?
Friesen has no desire to go into direct competition with big companies; instead, he plans to continue focusing on specific niche areas that have particular needs. "We don't operate the same service at all. We feel that we bring a choice for the customers, and perhaps in some ways it might even enhance the service – bringing a choice, although it's a small choice, to our customers," says Friesen.
Reid sees Bearskin continuing the entrepreneurial spirit of aviation history in this country. "This is part of the great tradition of Canadian aviation, which is using small aircraft very focused, lean, cost-effective methods of moving people and goods from point to point in a very large country," says Reid. "What Bearskin is doing is entirely consistent with the generation of entrepreneurs going back to Max Ward [founder of Wardair]."
Keeping Bearskin small and focused on profit rather than on growth is the right move, says Reid. By serving secondary routes and not taking on the same debt load as the major players, he believes that smaller airlines definitely have a place in the market. "What they have to be able to do is make sure they are sufficiently opportunistic in entering the market, and do so on the premise that they're going to effectively fill the niches that they can," says Reid.
Friesen and his partners take expansion one step at a time, keeping a close eye on spending so they can manage if the venture fails. "We feel we expand with a little more cautionâ€¦and as a result of that we feel we've been successful," says Friesen.
Friesen attributes the airline's success to the ability to fill a very specific marketplace that is focused on profit rather than on expansion. "It's a matter of trying to fill the airplanes even though you have fewer seats; the idea is to operate with as many seats filled as you can. I think that allows us to operate profitably," says Friesen. In fact, Bearskin has a commercial agreement with Air Canada that offers connecting flights from smaller locations in Northern Ontario to bigger hubs such as Sudbury, allowing passengers to fly where they need to and avoid going to bigger airports out of their way.
"It is well known in the industry that the ability to get people close to where they live, or close to where they want to go is a vital factor in carrier choice. So this is a good arrangement," says Reid. He sees small carriers having a distinct advantage in these agreements because they can serve the region profitably with the right equipment, and they are assured a steady stream of customers. The big airlines benefit because they can claim to offer more destinations, without having to fly big jets with a handful of passengers into these Northern regions.