Exchange Income Corporation: Envisioning a life in flight

Exchange Income Corporation (EIC) launched in 2004 with the acquisition of Winnipeg-based Perimeter Aviation, a provider of scheduled flight and cargo services into Northern Manitoba.

In 2004, Exchange Income Corporation was launched with the acquisition of Winnipeg-based Perimeter Aviation. EIC Photo
In 2004, Exchange Income Corporation was launched with the acquisition of Winnipeg-based Perimeter Aviation. EIC Photo
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EIC is a publicly traded, acquisition-oriented company that prides itself on its diverse holdings, which generally fall into two baskets: aerospace and aviation services and equipment, and manufacturing.

In the years following its acquisition of Perimeter, EIC went on to acquire eight other air operators, including Calm Air International, Custom Helicopters, Keewatin Air, Moncton Flight College, PAL Aerospace, PAL Airlines, and partner operators Wasaya Airways and Air Borealis. It also added Regional One to the fold, which focuses on aircraft leasing and parts.

Combined, EIC’s group of air operators flew about 217,000 hours in 2019. Its fleet of 214 aircraft range in size from a Diamond DA20 single-engine trainer at MFC up to a twin-engine ATR 72 turboprop at Calm Air.

Life in flight

With close to 700 pilots on its payroll, EIC began to anticipate the current pilot shortage several years ago. To keep its cockpits occupied, company directors began to lay the groundwork for a program that would generate a homegrown fix to a global industry problem.

“There is continuous demand for pilots, so in 2017 we started having discussions inside EIC about coming up with an internal solution,” explained David White, executive vice-president of Aviation at EIC. “At that same time, we were in the process of acquiring the Moncton Flight College (MFC) which was a key element of the equation.”

A Keewatin Air Beechcraft King Air 200 sitting under the northern lights. EIC Photo
A Keewatin Air Beechcraft King Air 200 sitting under the northern lights. EIC Photo

The February 2018 acquisition of MFC was the missing piece that allowed EIC to design a program it calls Life in Flight, which has been carefully structured to support and transition a pilot from their introductory flying lesson all the way through to a flight crew position at an EIC member airline.

A great deal of planning had to be done before Life in Flight could be officially unveiled at the May 8, 2019 EIC annual general meeting. To lay the groundwork, the corporation called upon its in-house expertise, assembling a core group of representatives from all EIC aviation operations.

“It was a collaborative approach,” recalled Mike Tilley, MFC CEO. “We came into the family and working with David and the other EIC air operators, we talked about what was important to them and the regional differences and challenges. We took all the feedback and honed in on what the program would look like.”

Operators were asked to describe the obstacles they face when it comes to finding, training and retaining pilots. A key message that emerged from these conversations was that new pilots often lack a reliable support network – so that become integral to Life in Flight.

“We heard that some people just didn’t understand aviation,” said White. “We realized there was a mentorship piece we had to tie into, [so they can] reach out and talk to peers.”

Three Life in Flight students with an MFC Diamond DA20 training aircraft: Kristi-Lee Bauchke, Troy Wilson and Kirk Sparkes. EIC Photo
Three Life in Flight students with an MFC Diamond DA20 training aircraft: Kristi-Lee Bauchke, Troy Wilson and Kirk Sparkes. EIC Photo

Defined career path

EIC wanted potential students to see the rewards of the Life in Flight program laid out in front of them. In exchange for a five-year work commitment, grads embark on a clear path to a job with an EIC air operator and a rewarding and lucrative piloting career.

To attract students, EIC designed a Life in Flight website and regularly posts on Instagram and Facebook.

“We’re hoping to attract young people,” said Tilley. “We’re looking for people who are interested in becoming a pilot; and also, strategically, people who will want to live and work in the communities that we serve. If you’re from the North, and you want to be a pilot, we’re very interested in you. Often, it’s hard to retain people up there. As well, locals can also become role models for their communities and inspire others.”

Interested applicants have an interview with MFC and also with its air operators.

“If you know where you’d like to end up working, there will be a representative from their HR department in the interview, too,” noted White. “We want to be able to offer potential students a job even before they start the training, so we want to be sure they’re the right candidate for us.”

Those who are accepted find themselves facing the hefty cost of flight training. Life in Flight offers a solution to that challenge. Students are eligible to apply for access to up to $100,000 in funding through a unique plan offered by a major Canadian bank.

A Calm Air ATR 42 on the gravel runway at Elk Island Airport in Manitoba. EIC Photo
A Calm Air ATR 42 on the gravel runway at Elk Island Airport in Manitoba. EIC Photo

“It helps pay for your training but also your living expenses, so you can do an accelerated one-year program to get your commercial pilot licence [with multi-engine instrument rating],” explained Tilley.

Throughout the training phase, students are paired with a mentor at their chosen air operator. This ensures they have critical support during an intensive training phase.

Following the one-year program, it takes an additional three months for students to earn their instructor rating. At that point, they are no longer a student and transition to being an EIC employee.

The first part of their five-year work commitment involves building at least 1,500 hours of experience as an MFC flight instructor.

“No matter where you’re from, you end up working at the school for about two years to help train the next generation,” said Tilley.

At that point, grads move on to a full-time pilot position at the EIC air operator of their choice.

“The total commitment to be part of the program is five years combined between the flight school and the air operator,” he continued. “Once they do that, they get a completion award that will help pay off whatever might be left on their student loan.”

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White said by that point, EIC hopes to have a crop of 4,000-hour pilots, hopefully debt free, with a career ahead of them at EIC or wherever they want to go.

“We do feel that by attracting people from the areas we service they are more likely to stay with us longer.”

Students in EIC's Life in Flight program attend classes in rooms themed after the company's various air operators. It allows them to become immersed in specific company cultures -- in this case, Calm Air. EIC Photo
Students in EIC’s Life in Flight program attend classes in rooms themed after the company’s various air operators. It allows them to become immersed in specific company cultures — in this case, Calm Air. EIC Photo

Strategic launch

When Life in Flight grads move into the right seat at an EIC air operator, they will already have about 1,500 hours of experience. White said that helps the company address not only the pilot shortage, but also the experience shortage.

In addition, “the beauty of having a collection of companies like EIC has, including the Moncton Flight College, is that we can collaborate on standard operating procedures and get that training in at the ab initio level to help these people be successful.”

To get the program off the ground, EIC hired a program director, Robin Jacuzzi, a commercial pilot whom both White and Tilley consider to be the ideal mentor.

Life in Flight accepted its first official intake of 13 students on Nov. 5, 2019. They joined an additional eight students who were part of a previous “soft launch.”

“We’ve been trying to be strategic and not jump the gun,” said Tilley. “We don’t have unlimited seats. The first group includes people who’ve been in our hiring lens for the past while.”

Currently, Life in Flight is only open to Canadian students, but international students are part of the future design. EIC also has plans to replicate the program for maintenance, flight operations and flight medical personnel.

With funding, mentorship and a defined career path, EIC’s Life in Flight program is an attractive option for new aviators looking to build their careers with more job security than ever before.

“For me, it’s a very proactive step towards protecting the future,” concluded MFC’s Tilley. “We’re offering somebody a great career with best in class training, they have it funded, and they get their first and second job. It’s a great choice for them to consider.”

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