B.C. tips wing to Viking Air
Twin Otter maker wins export prize as workforce expands, orders swell
The B.C. Export Award for manufactured products may not feature prominently in Viking Air’s marketing materials, but the 2011 accolade will play a role in maintaining the overall health of the Victoria company as it continues to grow, say company officials.
Viking, which has been growing steadily since it started production of de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft last year, is embracing the award knowing it could draw a bigger share of the spotlight for the company.
“It’s recognition for the work we have been doing ... the improvement and exporting we have been doing,” said Viking spokeswoman Angie Murray. “And it might help with our efforts for recruitment and promoting our company.”
Murray said Viking Air is “a best-kept secret in Victoria ... not a lot of people know about us because we are exporters and our customers are all over the world so there’s not a lot of marketing done in B.C.”
A relatively low profile can be a problem when a company is adding to its employee roster in times when finding skilled tradespeople isn’t easy.
It’s a task that could become more difficult in the coming years with the massive shipbuilding contract awarded to Seaspan that is expected to put a premium on skilled trades in the province.
“That could create a vacuum in the trades in Victoria,” said Murray.
She noted Viking has decided to focus on creating an attractive work environment and strengthening ties to training schools.
“We are hoping that peo- ple enjoy what they are doing here, the product we’re making, and that’s where awards like this can help. When they see that we’re going global, they realize it’s an exciting time to be at Viking Air,” Murray said.
The company now boasts 560 employees split between its manufacturing facilities in Victoria (415) and Calgary (145) and is continually adding to the roster. “We have been in a growth pattern over the last few years,” said Murray. “There’s always jobs on our website and we are constantly adding new ones.”
She said now that the production line is established, Viking Air is backfilling jobs across the company.
Hiring will continue as Viking ramps up to its ultimate goal of producing 24 Twin Otter aircraft a year.
At this point the company has built 10 Twin Otters, delivered seven to buyers all over the world and has back orders to 2016. The company is currently ramping up to produce aircraft at a rate of about 18 a year.
Murray said they are trying to manage their growth with long-term viability in mind.
“Right now there are about 600 [Twin Otter] airframes flying all over the world. We built our business on spare parts and support, so we don’t want to flood the market even though the demand is there,” Murray said.
“We want to slowly build to keep people employed over the long term. The aviation industry can be volatile and we didn’t want to have the hire-fire debate going on. We want to sustain what we’ve got to keep everyone here and happy.”
That’s why plans to expand the company to allow for a second production line for de Havilland Buffalo aircraft — used by the military for rescue missions — is just in the discussion phase.
“It’s a blip on our radar,” said Murray. She noted launching a remade Buffalo would require a “launch customer” who would be ordering a significant number of aircraft to justify the move.
Viking’s resources are focused on the Series 400 Twin Otter.
In Victoria, parts and large aircraft components are manufactured before being shipped to Calgary where the plans are assembled.
The planes are then powered up and go through flight tests before being flown back to Victoria for final fits, customer acceptance and modification before they are flown or shipped to the new owners.
Murray said demand for the Twin Otters has been very strong given its versatility.
It has been used as a personal aircraft, to service the oil and gas industry, for military operations and as regional commuter aircraft.
“It has so many applications. It’s as diverse as the customers that buy it,” Murray said.
“In each of the markets, it’s in some ways the only aircraft that can do what it does. It becomes the aircraft of choice.”