Cenovus, Suncor take airline travel in-house
'A fleet of aircraft that can take people to site is a huge benefit,' Cenovus says
Travis Robinson’s commute to work is a little more involved than taking public transit or crawling along with the morning traffic on Deerfoot Trail, the four-lane highway that runs along the eastern edge of downtown Calgary. Every other week the production engineer with Cenovus Energy Inc. makes the trip from his home in Okotoks, about 20 kilometers south of Canada’s oil capital, to Christina Lake in northeast Alberta.
On a commercial airline, Robinson would arrive at the airport 90 minutes before his 65-minute flight departure, followed by a two-hour bus ride from Fort McMurray Airport to Cenovus’s steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) operation at Christian Lake. Instead, he arrives on a company plane that departs from a small terminal at the Calgary International Airport, boards quickly and flies directly to the work site. He saves two hours or more every week in travel time, and Cenovus saves money.
“You only have to be there 15 minutes before the flight,” Robinson says. “The parking lot is 100 yards away from the door to get in. Just walk in, show them your ID cards and you’re checked in in 30 seconds. It’s super convenient.”
Robinson is one of thousands of oil sands workers who fly directly to their work site, cutting out time spent commuting on a bus from the Fort McMurray airport or the even longer drive north from Edmonton along Highway 63, a notoriously deadly stretch of highway. As oil sands facilities in northeast Alberta have expanded, so too have the private air fleets that serve them.
Cenovus operates a small fleet of aircraft to ferry employees back and forth from camps near oil sands developments to their homes throughout Alberta. The company runs 20 scheduled flights a week out of four different airports in Alberta, all feeding into Leismer, an aerodrome operated by the Canadian arm of Statoil ASA.
“To attract a good workforce, we have to make sure we are getting people to work as conveniently as possible,” says Monica Thisted, travel logistics lead for Cenovus. “To have a fleet of aircraft that can take people to site is a huge benefit.”
It’s a testament to the expansion of small company-owned fleets among oil sands operators that they have begun to look and feel so much like commercial airlines. On Cenovus aircraft, passengers are served hot breakfasts and have to check in before flights. Owning the planes means the company is more flexible when it needs to add extra flights or work around disruptive weather.
“We don’t have to rely solely on commercial travel, especially to places like Fort McMurray,” Thisted says. “There’s not enough commercial aircraft going up there. There are not enough seats for everyone.”
That lack of capacity is something officials at the Fort McMurray Airport Authority (FMAA) are trying to fix. The original terminal was built in 1986 to handle 235,000 passengers a year. Annual passenger numbers have tripled since 2004, growing to 800,000 a year. An expansion now underway will give the airport room to handle nearly 1.5 million passengers per year, roughly the same number of people who currently fly into the region annually.
“You do see four private airports north of us, probably with just as much traffic in and out of those aerodromes as into the Fort McMurray Airport. It’s a reality,” says Scott Clements, the authority’s chief executive officer. He has high hopes that the expansion will reroute some of that traffic back to the regional airport. “If all the aerodromes shut down tomorrow, we could handle it all.”
Clements has been pushing for more flights from various carriers, hoping the $258-million expansion will attract attention. Improvements to the terminal will cost about $198 million, plus $35 million to bring more utilities and road services to the airport and an extra $25 million to extend the runway.
In the span of six weeks earlier this summer, Clements visited the headquarters of 11 airlines, including WestJet and Air Canada, hoping to drum up more business. He is hoping increased business will include international flights direct to Fort McMurray. In order to accommodate international carriers, however, the airport will first need a customs facility.
That’s something officials are currently lobbying the federal government for; as many as 50,000 people pass through the airport from international destinations after touching down elsewhere in Canada first, the airport authority believes.
One oil sands operator that will benefit from the airport expansion is Syncrude Canada Ltd. Despite being one of the largest producers in the region, Syncrude has only two small aircraft used to move employees back and forth from Fort McMurray to offices in Calgary and Edmonton. “Syncrude always has been and always will be a Fort McMurray-based oil sands company. All of our operators are based in Fort McMurray,” says Robin Borse, the aviation manager for Syncrude. “We’re not pulling operators and business people out of their homes to work in the plants and when their shift is over sending them back. All of our heavy truck drivers, our business people live in Fort McMurray.”
The company is moving fewer than 1,000 passengers a month back and forth on its two Cessna Citation aircraft, business jets that carry about 10 people. Syncrude employees who need to travel on the planes book space on one of six regularly scheduled flights, three to Edmonton and three to Calgary.
While Syncrude’s passenger numbers are significantly lower than that of Cenovus, the reasons the company operates its own aircraft are much the same as its competitors: control and safety. If there is inclement weather, Syncrude is better able to control when its staff will be in the air and there’s less chance an overnight hotel stay will be required.
“A lot of our travellers are frequent travellers. If they have to fly airlines all the time, you can get a level of burnout on the people,” Borse says. “It enhances their quality of life. They are able to leave at a fairly normal time.”
Flying into Fort McMurray Airport isn’t an option for every company. Suncor Energy Inc. has one of the largest private fleets among oil sands operators. The company’s fleet will transport on average 25,000 people every month, and that number will jump to 32,000 on a busy month. Suncor’s fleet includes three Canadian Regional Jets, two 90-seat versions and a 50-seater.
“Operationally, we can guarantee our service,” says Bill Grainger, the director of transportation for Suncor. “It’s cheaper than a commercial operation and gives us flexibility when there’s an unexpected event and when we need to move people quickly.”
The company flies daily routes from Calgary and Edmonton, bringing employees to the Firebag airport, where they are picked up by buses and brought to site. “It’s that control element where we can get people to their place of work in a safe and efficient manner,” Grainger says. “If you look at the other side of that, our employees like that convenience.”
That level of service includes amenities on the flight that are familiar to most commercial passengers. A warm breakfast is served to employees travelling north by company flight attendants. When officials tried to phase out warm banana bread, there was such a backlash that it had to be reinstated immediately.
Even the Firebag airport, about 60 kilometers north of Fort McMurray, has many of the amenities of a traditional airport. There are emergency services on site and a large departure lounge. The facility “wouldn’t look any different to any other minor airport,” Grainger says.
On top of being one of the biggest, Suncor has also been operating its own aircraft for potentially the longest. The company started 65 years ago with an old de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, an aircraft designed for bush landings that carries only a handful of passengers.
The expansion from the old de Havilland Canada to small fleets of passenger and business jets servicing various small air strips will likely continue according to Ian Darnley, the director of business development for Sunwest Aviation Ltd. “The trend has been towards moving larger groups of people. My sense is that the scope of the size of the operations of the projects in Alberta has grown, so the requirement to move larger groups of people has grown as well,” he says.
As well as offering its own charter service and operating its own fleet, Sunwest is contracted to operate six aircraft for Cenovus, including two Dash 8 300s, and a 50-passenger aircraft used by major airlines (Air Canada Jazz operates 26 of them). Cenovus also has three smaller passenger aircraft and a small jet in its fleet, all of which are staffed with Sunwest pilots and flight attendants.
Cenovus has already recognized the need to grow. The company plans to add another 1,700 employees to its workforce by 2015. Some of those people will be found in Fort McMurray. Others will need to fly in, which means more, and possibly bigger, aircraft.
Thisted says the company has been talking with other oil sands producers about jointly operating a larger 737, with the capacity to carry 150 passengers. The larger aircraft would mean more workers heading to the oil sands could experience less time stuck in airports or on the highway, just like Robinson during his biweekly flight on Cenovus’s corporate fleet. “It’s way better just because of the time savings,” he says.