Western advantage

Calgary-based Sunwest Aviation has been doing things a little differently for more than 30 years.

The addition of a Gulfstream 650ER has extended the reach of Sunwest Aviation's aircraft charter business. Here, it takes off from Verona Villafranca Airport in Italy. Monica De Guidi Photo
The addition of a Gulfstream 650ER has extended the reach of Sunwest Aviation’s aircraft charter business. Here, it takes off from Verona Villafranca Airport in Italy. Monica De Guidi Photo
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A privately-owned business aircraft management and charter company providing a diverse range of business aviation offerings, “we are unique in that we have such a broad scope of aircraft types and services,” said Sunwest’s business development director, Ian Darnley.

From domestic oilfield workforce transportation and medevac flights, to intercontinental jet operations, to business aircraft acquisition and sales and consulting services, it’s what Sunwest proudly refers to as “the Sunwest advantage.”

“What it’s all about is treating people right–our customers, our employees and our shareholders,” Darnley told Skies. “It’s a challenging business and it’s a very complex business, from an operating standpoint, from a regulatory, technical, customer service and financial standpoint. People have very high service expectations and they should. It’s rewarding when you do it right, and in the rare times when it doesn’t go right, you deal with those situations in an honest and straightforward way. People [will] respect that and they’ll keep coming back. That’s how you stay in business a long time and are successful.”

Sunwest pilots have a unique opportunity to progress through the company's varied fleet, moving from turboprops to jets. Kristian Bogner Photo
Sunwest pilots have a unique opportunity to progress through the company’s varied fleet, moving from turboprops to jets. Kristian Bogner Photo

The company operates and maintains a diverse fleet under the Sunwest operating certificate. Driven by the needs of its customers, the aircraft lineup includes everything from a Bombardier Lear 35 and a Beechcraft King Air 200, all the way to a Gulfstream G650ER and a Bombardier Dash 8-300.

“What also makes us unique and in contrast to many of our competitors, is that we also own a significant number of our aircraft,” said Darnley. Sunwest owns 13 of the 30 aircraft it currently manages, and it oversees the other 17 aircraft on behalf of individuals and corporate owners.

The fleet comprises 12 aircraft types, both business jets and business turboprops: a Gulfstream G650ER extended range business jet, a Gulfstream G550, a Bombardier Challenger 604, four Challenger 300s, two Cessna Citation Sovereigns, a Gulfstream G150, a Hawker 800XP, three Lear 45s and a Lear 35, four Dash 8s, six Beech 1900Ds, three Metros and two King Airs.

As a business jet operator, Sunwest flies all over the world. The company’s turboprop fleet, which makes up approximately 50 per cent of its aircraft operations, is focused on workforce charter flights and corporate shuttle missions, moving workers from urban centres such as Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver to oil and gas production facilities and other industrial worksites across Western Canada.

In 2013, Sunwest moved to its present location in the northwest quadrant of the Calgary International Airport. According to business development director Ian Darnley, the complex is the largest purpose-built business aviation facility in Canada. Kristian Bogner Photo
In 2013, Sunwest moved to its present location in the northwest quadrant of the Calgary International Airport. According to business development director Ian Darnley, the complex is the largest purpose-built business aviation facility in Canada. Kristian Bogner Photo

Sunwest also does air ambulance work for public health providers, insurance companies and individuals, and operates a small package cargo business.

The company, which operates scheduled passenger charter flights as well as on-demand passenger charter flights, can fly anywhere in the world with its intercontinental business jets, but the bulk of its flights are within North America.

In addition, Sunwest offers aircraft sales, acquisition and other related consulting services.

“Given our operating expertise, it allows us to offer a unique and high level of advice,” Darnley explained. “We do a lot of work with clients to determine what their needs are, researching and sourcing the aircraft they require. We do all the ground work starting with a needs analysis all the way through to entry into service.”

Owned by three managing shareholders–CEO Richard Hotchkiss, chief operating officer Mike Gocal and Darnley–plus four non-managing shareholders, Sunwest employs approximately 200 staff.

The company’s roots go back to the 1980s, to the original Sunwest Aviation in Calgary. In 1999, Sunwest merged with Home Aviation–that company had its origins as the flight department of Home Oil, a Sunwest competitor founded by current Sunwest CEO Richard Hotchkiss in the mid 1990s. This consolidation paved the way for the subsequent expansion of the new entity. In 2013, the growing company moved to its present location in the northwest quadrant of the Calgary International Airport (YYC).

Sunwest's hangar complex comprises 377,000 square feet of building and airside ramp space. Kristian Bogner Photo
Sunwest’s hangar complex comprises 377,000 square feet of building and airside ramp space. Kristian Bogner Photo

With sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains to the west and downtown Calgary to the south, Sunwest’s hangar complex comprises 377,000 square feet of building and airside aircraft ramp space, which Darnley describes as the largest purpose-built business aviation facility in Canada. It includes a 170,000-square-foot building, featuring 110,000 square feet of hangar space plus 60,000 square feet of office, passenger lounge and maintenance shop space.

Three separate passenger lounges with a total capacity of approximately 300 people offer something for every type of traveller. The company’s private parking lot, which accommodates up to 600 vehicles, is lit and gated.

“This building is unique. There is nothing else of this size and capability for a multi-use business aviation facility in Canada,” said Darnley, noting that other than the main airport buildings, Sunwest’s aviation complex is the largest in Calgary.

The hangar space is comprised of four 27,500-square-foot bays with varying door sizes that can admit aircraft up to a narrow-body Boeing jet. Darnley said the company takes pride in the condition and cleanliness of its hangars, believing this embodies Sunwest’s commitment to excellence in every aspect of its business. A tour of the hangars reveals polished concrete floors and gleaming stainless steel storage cabinets lining the walls.

The three separate passenger lounges include a private VIP facility with its own separate entrance, passenger check-in, airside ramp access and valet car cleaning service as required. “You can drop your car off, throw us the keys and away you go,” said Darnley.

Sunwest's turboprop fleet accounts for roughly 50 per cent of its operations. The aircraft are used mainly for workforce charter flights and corporate shuttle missions to oil and gas production facilities and other worksites. Janos Englert Photo
Sunwest’s turboprop fleet accounts for roughly 50 per cent of its operations. The aircraft are used mainly for workforce charter flights and corporate shuttle missions to oil and gas production facilities and other worksites. Janos Englert Photo

There is also a large public lounge and another secure passenger lounge that offers passenger screening and security services.

At the end of 2018, Sunwest Aviation became the official Shell AeroCentre fixed-base operator (FBO) at the Calgary International Airport. As one of Calgary’s largest FBOs, Sunwest offers a full range of aircraft and passenger handling services for aircraft of all sizes, including parking and hangar rental, fuelling with Shell aviation fuel, de-icing, and aircraft maintenance on request. Crews make the most of Sunwest’s pilot lounge and flight planning facilities, while passengers relax in Sunwest’s comfortable lounges.

There are now five FBOs, including Sunwest, in Calgary. What makes Sunwest stand out, Darnley said, is “our state-of-the-art facility, very good access to downtown and Deerfoot Trail, great access to the main terminal, and if required, a customs office right across the street. In addition, we have our own de-icing truck and we are in very close proximity to the north de-icing ramp at YYC.”

Like many businesses in Alberta, Sunwest has had to adjust its operations in the last five years in response to the downturn in the Alberta economy. At its peak in 2013-2014, Sunwest Aviation operated more than 50 aircraft, a number that has since contracted to 30, reflecting the significant reduction in the number of oil and gas-related charters in general.

Four 27,500-square-foot bays with varying door sizes can admit aircraft as large as a narrow-body Boeing commercial jet. Sunwest Aviation Photo
Four 27,500-square-foot bays with varying door sizes can admit aircraft as large as a narrow-body Boeing commercial jet. Sunwest Aviation Photo

“We had to adjust due to the downturn in the energy industry and the shrinking of the local charter business,” Darnley explained. “We’ve gone through a difficult time with our local economy in the last five years, but we managed our business through that very well. We are in a real position of strength, and we’re optimistic we’ll be able to grow our company back to where it was at its peak in terms of the number of aircraft and employees.”

One of the positives has been Sunwest’s expansion of its jet management business, which has evolved to become more global in nature. In the past three years, Sunwest added four newer jet aircraft to its fleet, including the first Gulfstream G650ER in Canada. “We see continuing growth and potential for that as we adjust our business to follow the needs of our clientele,” said Darnley.

“In terms of our operations, we operate to the absolute highest standards because of our close ties to the oil and gas industry. As a result, we adhere to safety and service standards that go beyond the average commercial aircraft operators, and we’re audited by numerous independent agencies on an annual basis, in addition to Transport Canada. All of our clients benefit from this level of scrutiny.

The ramp at Sunwest will be full this summer, when the company hosts the Canadian Business Aviation Association show from July 9 to 11. Rod Hiebert Photo
The ramp at Sunwest will be full this summer, when the company hosts the Canadian Business Aviation Association show from July 9 to 11. Rod Hiebert Photo

He added that considering increasing airport congestion and capacity constraints with commercial airlines, “I think there is going to be continued growth in business aviation in Canada and in North America generally.”

Darnley pointed to the industrial air charter business as just one example. “Our clients need to move their people to work. It’s increasingly difficult to do that with the airlines, because the airlines tell you when you go and only to public airports. The only way they can establish their own schedule for moving employees to remote worksites is by chartering companies like ours. People want to avoid congested aircraft terminals; they want to go where they want to go, when they want to go, and that’s what we offer. And they want to go with companies with a long, solid safe history like ours. We have an exemplary safety record.”

This summer, Sunwest Aviation will be in the industry spotlight when it hosts the 2019 Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA) conference, which takes place July 9 to 11 in Calgary. It’s an opportunity to celebrate, on many levels–the Calgary Stampede will be in full swing, and that’s always a big draw to the city.

Conference goers will be able to see the latest business and private aircraft at the CBAA industry trade show, in a static display at Sunwest Aviation. Original equipment manufacturers, including Bombardier, Gulfstream, Cessna and Dassault, will be onsite.

“That will draw some attention to our industry and to what our capabilities are here at Sunwest,” concluded Darnley. “We think it’s an excellent opportunity to showcase our facility and to show people what we’re all about.”

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