Buffalo Airways grounded

The Buffalo Airways aircraft that usually flies between Hay River and Yellowknife sits idle at the airport in Hay River on Dec. 4.

The Buffalo Airways aircraft that usually flies between Hay River and Yellowknife sits idle at the airport in Hay River on Dec. 4.

Buffalo Airways – an aviation institution in the NWT and Hay River – has been grounded by Transport Canada.

The federal department suspended Buffalo’s air operator certificate, effective 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 30. The move prohibits the company from providing commercial air services.

In a Dec. 1 news release, Transport Canada explained it took the action in the interest of public safety because of a “poor safety record” by Buffalo Airways.

“The department will not allow Buffalo Airways to resume its commercial air service until it proves it can keep its operations consistently compliant with aviation safety regulations,” stated Transport Canada.

Buffalo Airways has responded to Transport Canada’s action by way of a news release and postings on its Facebook page.

“Buffalo Airways is working with Transport Canada to resolve the issues in dispute and to lift the suspension as soon as possible,” the release states. “Buffalo Airways anticipates that the suspension period will be short.”

The company also stated it has proposed to Transport Canada that it could contract an independent manager to oversee operations while the period of suspension is in effect so it can continue to provide aviation services, particularly to regions depending upon the delivery of essential services, until the issues underlying the suspension are resolved.

As of Dec. 3, the company was still waiting for Transport Canada’s response to the idea.

“Buffalo Airways has always been and remains committed to safe aviation in the North,” the release states.

In a Dec. 3 Facebook post, Buffalo Airways said it had chartered aircraft to support its passenger service flights between Hay River and Yellowknife, as well as deliver groceries, cargo and holiday supplies to Deline, Tulita and Norman Wells.

“Buffalo Airways will continue to meet our customers’ needs, by any means necessary,” the company stated.

Buffalo also stated it has been “overwhelmed” by the amount of support it has received both nationally and internationally, adding, “We have the best customers and fans in the world!”

Buffalo Airways is known internationally because of the reality TV show Ice Pilots NWT, which focused on the company’s use of Second World War era DC-3 and DC-4s for its passenger and cargo flights.

Its Facebook page contains messages of support from all over the world, such as, “We are all rooting for you here in England. Good luck in getting things worked out.”

Mayor Brad Mapes said Buffalo Airways is part of the community in Hay River.

“Buffalo Airways, the McBryan family, do so much for our community, not just providing a service for travel to Yellowknife and beyond, but also what they give back to the community,” he said. “I’m hoping that this can be solved quickly.”

Mapes said the suspension of Buffalo Airways is personal for many people in Hay River.

“I’ve seen a lot of support from the residents, to support what they’re doing,” he said. “Personally, and I can’t speak for the rest of council but I’ve travelled on Buffalo for years. I’ve always felt safe. I wasn’t worried.”

Joe Melanson, president of the Hay River Chamber of Commerce, said he hasn’t seen any negative impact to the community because Buffalo has contracted other operators.

“Right now, they’re meeting their commitments, and as long as that keeps going on then people are working and things are moving,” Melanson said on Dec. 4.

Transport Canada, in an e-mail response on Dec. 3 to inquiries from Northern News Services, stated it carried out an inspection of the airline in October that “identified deficiencies in the company’s operational and maintenance control systems. Several of the alleged deficiencies in its operational control system had been identified during previous inspections.”

Operational control systems ensure company actions are compliant with safety requirements for items such as pilot training and dispatching of aircraft, according to department spokesperson Julie-Anne Codaire.

Previously, the department has tried to enforce regulations by issuing fines, Codaire stated.

However, “these tools have not been strong enough to convince the company to significantly improve its safety record,” she wrote.

An April 2015 Transportation Safety Board report on a crash landing at the Yellowknife airport of a Buffalo flight in 2013 was critical of the airline.

The report stated Transport Canada would uncover issues which would be addressed by the airline only to reoccur.

In February of this year, the department carried out an inspection of the airline that found “areas for improvement.”

– Paul Bickford with files from Shane Magee