Joe McBryan, owner and president of Buffalo Airways and star of Ice Pilots NWT, has signed a letter agreeing to step away from the day-to-day operations of the airline, according to a consultant working to help the beleaguered company have its suspended air operator certificate reinstated.
On November 30, Transport Canada grounded the operations of the popular northern airline, citing a "poor safety record." The airline had continued to use charters to serve clients, but announced Thursday it's postponing passenger flights on its principal passenger route, between Yellowknife and Hay River, N.W.T.
To review and revamp its safety standards, the company hired DTI Training, a consulting firm that has worked with NASA and helped write Transport Canada's quality control procedures over a decade ago.
Sol Taboada, the firm's owner, told CBC that having McBryan, known fondly across the North as "Buffalo Joe," step away was "an extreme step" in response to pressure from Transport Canada.
But it may not be enough.
McBryan's letter was included in Buffalo's most recent submission to Transport Canada, but Taboada said the company received word Wednesday that it's still not satisfied.
'Joe never says no'
McBryan is not part of Buffalo's management team, but is heavily involved in day-to-day operations with the airline.
"You have a man who owns the company, a man with a powerful personality," Tabaoda said. "He's got 50 years experience. Even though he's technically not one of the executives in the company, if he walks through a hangar and tells somebody 'I think you should do this,' they're pretty much going to do it."
McBryan is also well-known as a man who gets things done, a reputation that Taboada said may be hurting him.
"One of the problems Buffalo Airways has is when a Northern community calls with an emergency and needs an extra piece of something on a plane for whatever reason, Joe never says no," he said. "They load it on, and so they'd be overweight.
According to Taboada, pressure for McBryan to step down were both subtle and not-so-subtle.
It came to a head at a Dec. 11 meeting with Transport Canada.
Buffalo presented a set of corrective actions, including a third-party "gatekeeper" who would oversee the company's flight operations, that Taboada believed would address the issues that led to Buffalo's suspension.
"The question was asked to me: 'If we lift the suspension today, what will the operation look like tomorrow?'" he said. "More specifically, what will the DC-3 operation look like?"
Taboada answered that the operations of the DC-3, a plane in Buffalo's fleet often piloted by McBryan, would be the same as the rest of Buffalo's aircraft. After the meeting, he received a call from an acquaintance working for Transport Canada.
"He goes: 'Is Joe going to be flying the DC-3?' I said: 'He's a pilot! Sure! Why not?' He goes: 'How are you going to control Joe on day-to-day operations?'," Taboada said.
"And I said: 'How am I going to control him? I can get a rope, I can tie him up and take a picture? Is that what you want?'"
'113 employees twisting in the wind'
Three weeks into the suspension, Taboada says he's worried that costs will spiral out of control, leaving the company on poor footing to resume operations.
McBryan has refused to lay off any of his employees, meaning that the airline is paying salaries and other costs, but is not taking in revenue.
Taboada says he feels that Transport Canada is not treating Buffalo fairly.
"You've got 113 employees twisting in the wind, not knowing if they're going to have a job. It's just not right," he said.
"Either let them operate to see if we've corrected these problems, or chop the head off right now. Just do it, and get it over with."
In an e-mail, Transport Canada spokesperson Amber Wonko said that "Transport Canada continues to work with Buffalo Airways in view to addressing the safety concerns identified."
Kristine Cook, Buffalo's communications manager, said the airline had no comment at this time. McBryan has declined to comment to media since the suspension began.