“Just when you think you’ve seen it all.”
Those of us who have spent our careers in aviation are used to the clichés: “unprecedented”; “never seen anything like it.” We’ve heard them all before. When major world events disrupt the natural flow of business and life, we’re usually among the first to feel it.
Canadian aerospace is a wonderful industry to be a part of. It’s fascinating, it’s dynamic, and it’s absolutely an essential part of our economy and our cultural identity. But we do learn to steel our spines in anticipation of the next challenge that might come out of nowhere, as this pandemic certainly did in early 2020. You think you have your plans all laid out, and the next thing you know, you are making significant, important decisions on information that is evolving in real-time, with people’s lives and livelihoods on the line. But that is what we sign up for in this business. I think our government leaders can certainly relate.
The business I’m fortunate to lead—KF Aerospace—really has seen its fair share of adversity. That’s what happens when you’ve been in business for nearly 52 years. And when you’ve come from nothing, perseverance is in your DNA. Our founder, Barry Lapointe, started this company in 1970 from the back of his pickup truck in the Okanagan Valley, B.C. He’d drive that truck out onto the field to meet a crop duster, writing up the maintenance receipt on his tailgate, the paper stained with the grease from the work he just did with his own two hands.
Today, KF Aerospace is Canada’s largest commercial aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) company. We have four facilities across Canada, employing more than 1,000 Canadians. We are also an aircraft engineering firm, lessor, cargo carrier and have been a proud training and support partner of the Royal Canadian Air Force for the past 16-plus years. It really is one of those great Canadian success stories we hear about but almost can’t believe are real. But this one is real, and you can find many more like ours across our country. It’s why Canada remains so resilient today.
When COVID-19 grounded Canada’s airlines, KF Aerospace lost a significant amount of our regular business virtually overnight. But we didn’t panic; we dug in. With the world reeling and the future uncertain, we knew we had to take immediate and decisive action to protect our employee’s health, their jobs, and be ready to do whatever was necessary to continue supporting our commercial and military customers. It wasn’t easy, but in collaboration with the federal government, I’m proud to say we were able to get through the worst of the pandemic’s shock without any significant operational closures or large-scale layoffs.
Today, the demand for our expertise is growing so fast we can barely keep up the hiring. Recently, we announced a new deal with Boeing to add two new cargo conversions lines in Kelowna. Next year, we’ll officially open the KF Aerospace Centre for Excellence—an aviation-themed exhibition hall and conference centre in Kelowna, B.C., that we hope will honour Canada’s legacy and inspire future generations to join the list of great Canadian builders in aviation.
But when we look to the future, perhaps we’re most excited about the opportunity to continue supporting the Royal Canadian Air Force. We’ve teamed up with CAE—another great Canadian business success story—to create SkyAlyne and compete together as the made- in-Canada solution for Canada’s Future Aircrew Training (FAcT) Program. FAcT is a generational program that will train all RCAF pilots and aircrew for the next 20-plus years. Building on the foundation of our experience, we will innovate, collaborate, and work together with our pan- Canada team of companies to build something truly Canadian for the future. Our solution ensures that all the jobs, R&D, and economic benefits from the FAcT Program fully support Canada’s recovery and long-term goals.
Suppose Canada does select its own home-grown businesses for FAcT. In that case, we’ll not only keep a critical capability fully in our own hands for future challenges, but we’ll seize the opportunity to create something new, something exciting, and something uniquely Canadian for the next generation. So, if you ask me how I feel about the future of Canadian aviation right now? Well, there’s still a lot of work to do, but perhaps I can try on a different cliché this time – I see sunnier skies and an industry that’s cleared for takeoff.
Tracy Medve is the president and CEO of KF Aerospace and the board chair of SkyAlyne. She is the past chair of the Air Transportation Association of Canada and the first woman in Canada to be inducted as an honorary life member of the organization. She previously sat as a director of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI).
This Op-Ed originally appeared in The Hill Times.