🛩️ As travel opens up with pent up travel demand, airports and airlines are scrambling to take advantage and kickstart operations again. However, operators face the challenge of staffing shortage while also trying to balance their costs.
Welcome to this episode of the JumpSeat with our guest Dave Marcontell, Chief Operating Officer at Waltzing Matilda Aviation (WMA). In this episode, Dave shares WMA’s new operations under Connect Airlines at Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto with connections to multiple Northeast and Midwest cities. This is a strategic move for WMA to navigate the post-pandemic landscape and to provide a way for roar warriors to skip commute and delays with reliable and safe flights.
The industry is undoubtedly heading towards carbon neutrality and WMA is taking the initiative to be at the forefront of these changes by leading the charge with hydrogen powered aircrafts in partnership with Universal Hydrogen. However, beyond technical solutions that are capital and R&D intensive, data solutions are great tools that are easy to implement to enable your fuel initiatives by leveraging technology and automation for decision making awareness.
Learn more about FuelSense and how it works or contact our sales team to customize a solution for your operations.
Welcome everybody, my name is Chris glass and I am with…
David Marcontell, I’m the Chief Operating Officer of Waltzing Matilda Aviation (WMA), which does business as Connect Airlines.
Excellent, welcome to the pod!
Glad to be here, thanks!
So can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well, I’ll keep it really short, but the short version of it is I’ve been in aviation for about 30+ years. I started my career at Delta Airlines and then did a little stint at Boeing; some time in Airborne Express, and had the wonderful opportunity to start a Part 135 airline called North South Airways way back in the day, but unfortunately the tech bubble wasn’t too kind to that. So, I found myself going into consulting and before I knew it, I was a partner with a boutique consultancy called team SAI, which did pretty well over a multi-year period and ultimately got purchased by Oliver Wyman, where I became the Managing Partner and General Manager of the CAVOK technical services, the aviation technical services division. And about a little more than a year ago, I joined up with an old client and colleague of mine, John Thomas, who owned Waltzing Matilda Aviation and came aboard as his Chief Operating Officer to start a Part 121 air carrier called Connect Airlines. So, that’s how I got here.
Excellent. Well, it sounds like you’ve had quite the journey, as most people do — [working at] airlines kind of get in your blood, aviation gets in your blood and it’s hard to get out, eh?
Yeah, that’s for sure. There’s probably more stories about that that I can tell for another time. Yes, absolutely. It’s a little bit like the mafia, I think.
Right! Once you’re in, you can never get out.
Never get out. Yeah.
Tell me a little bit about Waltzing Matilda.
Well, Waltzing Matilda has been around since 2008, specifically as a Part 135 air carrier. It initially had a couple of Citation jets on the certificate. More recently, it has been growing pretty dramatically, adding a couple of Challenger 604’s, to that certificate. So, [it’s currently] expanding its capabilities and reach pretty substantially. And it is based in Bedford, Massachusetts, which is right outside of Boston serving the greater Boston area. But this Part 121 effort is kind of a significant branch out from that, and the Waltzing Matilda Aviation Part 121 division of that — the Connect Airlines division of that, is going to be operating Dash 8-400 aircraft, Q400s, from Northeast and Midwest cities into Toronto’s Billy Bishop Island Airport. We have a fantastic, two-class product that we’re introducing to the marketplace. And really, we are very interestingly, and I’m sure we’ll talk about it, we are the launch customer for Universal Hydrogen’s all hydrogen powertrain for ATR 72 aircraft that’s expected to be delivered in 2025. So, we’ve really embraced the lower emissions, and ultimately zero emissions strategy. And we believe that with the sensitivity to environmental considerations and climate change, that the marketplace and the passengers will return to the turboprop world, as feeder and connector service to major airlines.
Right, and with all the focus on high fuel prices as well, that’s going to just help drive that sustainability side.
It does, it certainly does. I mean, it’s the kind of the devil in me — I don’t believe that, when you really kind of think about it, the high fuel prices further underscore the economics, the favorable economics of 70 seat or so sized turboprops compared to the 50 to 70 seat RJs that they’re usually replacing. And then you’ve got on top of that, the 40% of reduction in carbon emissions associated with the turboprops, well, at least the Dash 8 anyway, compared to the RJs that they’re replacing and it’s a really compelling story.
I came, in a previous career, I came from an airline that had Q400s and I have a lot of love for the aircraft. It’s a very comfortable plane for a turboprop and I can assume that’s why you picked it, and the operating costs as well.
We did. It was quite purposeful. It has got some great performance numbers, of course, but we really liked the fact that it was a fairly roomy cabin. We liked the fact that it had enough surface area in the cabin to allow us to do some interesting things with seat pitch and seats. We liked the fact that it had the anti-vibration and noise canceling system in the aircraft, which eliminates one of the more prominent concerns that passengers have raised about the aircraft. It was really, the way I kind of looked at it, the airplane was a little bit late, the Q400 anyway, with the ANVS (Active Noise and Vibration Suppression) systems was just a little bit late to the market by the time that big push started with the majors to go put regional jets on everything. And you know, we certainly understand why the majors were doing that, but it’s not the same environment as it was 15 or 18 years ago when those RJs were being introduced at that rate. And I think it’s time to take a fresh look at it.
So, I had the luxury of going on, it was Bombardier back at the time who was running the Q400, and they had come to my previous airline to kind of give us a sales pitch on the plane, and we got to go for a test flight. And they actually turned off the noise canceling system and had us compare the differences and that makes quite a difference in sound and everything. It was remarkable how much quieter it is once that’s turned on.
Yeah, it really is. And I think when you take that element to it and you then fast forward or acknowledge the safety benefits that the Part 121 industry has undergone, particularly the regional flyers, regional operators, and there’s been a lot of conversation today with the pilot shortages around and reduction in pilot hours. And my personal view is that that’s not going to change, we’re going to still have, at minimum, 1,500 hour pilots in the cockpit. And we’re still going to have very, very, I would call it conservative, safety oriented views towards high time and the combination of high time and low time pilots to avoid the scenario that occurred at Colgan Air, where there were two low time pilots in that aircraft at the same time. All of those things are going to continue to exist. And I think when you really reflect upon and really take the opportunity to try to sell the message that the safety ratings and the safety record of this aircraft post Colgan Air, it’s actually quite good. And that plus the improved cabin, it really starts to become a strong point about, “well, this IS for shorter routes”. This is absolutely a very competitive alternative to regional jets in every measure that you want to consider and look at. And we believe the passengers and the public will respond.
Yeah. And I don’t know if you follow a lot of the news up here in Canada, but lately you can’t turn on the news without lineups and security delays and six hour waits and customer service issues at Toronto Pearson International Airport. So, I’m guessing that went into a bit of your decision to head to Billy Bishop and that city center airport. So, can you talk to me a little bit about that decision and what advantages that airport holds?
Yeah, there’s no question about it. That was a huge part of the calculus. First of all, Toronto Pearson or Toronto generally, is fourth largest catchment market in all of North America, it is a very, very large market. And to be clear, Pearson will always be a major hub, a major center of flying with this international connect — when I say international, I’m talking about long haul international connections around the globe served by several carriers there — but when you look at business traffic in particular, point to point business traffic from the United States into Toronto, you really look at the extra time it takes to navigate through and process through the airport, through Pearson. It really presented an interesting advantage that we could provide US travelers in particular by avoiding, or giving them an option to avoid all of that extra delay associated with one the transit time, transportation time from Pearson into downtown. And then of course, not to mention, security and immigration and all the rest, all those kinds of things. Now, we recognize that, Billy Bishop today does not have pre-clearance for, which is an important element for US travelers in particular. But there is a strong commitment on the part of the PortsToronto and the Canadian government to put that in place there at Billy Bishop. We believe the latest latest report, or communication discussions that I’ve had with PortsToronto, put that into early 2023 or sometime in 2023. And when that happens, we think it’s going to make it that a very, very, attractive option for business travelers looking to day trips or short trips that they can get in and out , get their work done, and get back home. And having personally spent 20 years in consulting and flown over 3 million miles with one carrier alone, you really value — those road warriors really value being able to get in and get out, because they’ve just got so many customers and clients to see. They don’t have a lot of time at home and they want to cherish every minute that they get.
Right. And a couple extra hours with your kids. It’s hard to put a price on that.
Really hard. Yeah, exactly.
I’m a new dad myself and I find myself trying to take advantage of as many of those moments as I can to get home and go from there. So, this is a bit of a transition for WMA or Waltzing Matilda moving towards the scheduled service. How’s that been going as you get close to launch. How’s that challenge been and how’s that journey been for you?
Yeah. You know, it’s been a journey to say the least. It has, in many respects been great, but in a couple respects, been pretty difficult, and I’ll explain. The setup of the airline, the hiring of people, the acquisition of aircraft, building the infrastructure, that has gone basically to plan. We always planned on roughly a 12-month process to get all that in place, and that’s inclusive of the FAA certification process, the air carrier certification process, which is, you know, manuals design and all the validation steps, etc. That has gone as expected. What has not gone as expected is, that in the United States, there are really two elements or two key requirements for becoming a US air carrier. One is to go through the FAA’s Safety and Airworthiness process, that’s both from an operational perspective, as well as from an airworthiness or a maintenance perspective, and that’s very FAA centric. And the second part is an Economic Fitness and Public Convenience process with the Department of Transportation. Now in our government here in the United States, the FAA technically works for the DOT, but the economic fitness division of the DOT is very, very different from the FAA. And this is, in effect, a commercial license for lack of a better description. There is extensive vetting of the financials of the company, of the business plan of the company, of the leadership team of the company. And that has been challenged, or a challenge from a timing standpoint — [With] the DOT, we filed our application on April 2nd, 2021. And we are, at this point, still waiting for final DOT approval. In fact, it’s become such a challenge for us, we’ve completed all of the FAA steps except for the very last one, which is proving runs, and the only reason why we haven’t done proving runs is because the FAA requires that the DOT commercial, or what’s called the Show Cause Order for Public Necessity has to be issued in order for the FAA to proceed with the proving runs. SO, the that’s a long way of saying the long poll and the tent is the DOT and we are still waiting for that to get done. Now that said, we remain confident. We’ve been advised, by the DOT in formal communications with them that our application is complete, that they’re reviewing and it’s working its way through the process. We’re not a 100% clear as to what they’re working on at the moment, but we are hopeful and anxious that we will see an announcement coming out of the DOT very shortly, and then we’re ready to go do our proving runs. And let’s just say, call it six weeks after we’ve received notification from the DOT, we will have our air carrier certificate and ready to go sell tickets and start serving the public.
Well, that’s exciting times to get that close to getting off the ground.
Yeah, it is. It’s just fingers crossed — and toes, and all the rest of that. [We are] just very anxious and biting at the bit to get started.
So, the next place I really want to want to talk about, you kind of hit the nail on the head earlier when you said we’ll definitely be talking about it later on in the podcast, but you were talking about your fuel initiatives and sustainability, I believe it’s called Project Zero. Can you tell me about that and the decision to go in that direction?
Yeah, I think it’s a reflection of a long term view of where the market needs to go and where it is in fact heading. And while there are some clearly some technical challenges along the way, this is where it’s going. Without turning into a political conversation around climate change, I think I will just simply say that there is an increasingly accepted acknowledgement that climate change is having an effect on society and is having effect on our earth, right? And that this is caused by carbon emissions. And governments around the world are increasingly looking to various industries to reduce their carbon footprints, and aviation is one that is challenged in this regard. And I’m not saying it’s challenged from a policy perspective, it’s challenged from a technology perspective. And I’m going to have to harken back to my old engineering days and thermodynamics, which I’ll try to avoid since I don’t remember enough about it. But the net of it is that our current jet fuel burning engines, whether they be turboprops or turbofans, from a energy density consumption and use standpoint, specific energy perspective, they’re pretty efficient. We get a lot of power out of these machines and out of that kerosene fuel. However, that kerosene fuel produces a certain degree of emissions on its own when it’s burned and of course it requires the emitting of carbon just to get it out of the ground and work its way through the refining process. So, [that’s a] long, long way of saying there’s a lot of recognition in the public, and we think it will continue to grow, that there has to be better solutions and aviation has to take its part. Now, obviously there’s multiple technologies that are being considered and evaluated by all the leading manufacturers. And look, they’re a lot smarter than I am and all the rest of that, but it seems to be evolving down into, let’s call it two to three buckets of opportunity [for] longer range [flights]. One of those of course are battery, purely battery powered aircraft for which the weight and density of batteries will probably only work for very, very short haul, almost air taxi type styles. I mean, that’s seems it’s headed.
Yeah, I’ve seen it for those little harbor planes that are flying 10-15 minute flights.
Yes, extremely short. But then when you get beyond that, the most viable solution, and there’s lots of talk about hybrid solutions, but the next level of that is hydrogen. And there are really two forms of that, there is hydrogen fuel cells and then there’s actually burning some form of hydrogen in a gas breathing engine or gas breathing turbine of some form. And it was the hydrogen fuel cell approach that we found to be the most near term and viable for the markets that we were looking to serve, that being again the regional connector market, with an improved product. And that’s what led us to starting to consider various technical solutions. And we really, at the end of the day, became most comfortable with Universal Hydrogen’s approach, their leadership team, their capitalization, their ability to deliver, because it’s more than just simply the technology, right? There’s the technology associated with the electric motor and getting that certified, but then there’s the technology associated with the fuel cell. And then in the case of these kinds of solutions, how do you bring hydrogen into that fuel cell? It’s not a static fuel cell. So, that means you need an infrastructure to deliver liquid hydrogen in tanks to the aircraft to be able to integrate with the aircraft and with those fuel cells, which is a large infrastructure project when you think about.
With multiple partners.
Partners across the across the globe, at least within a geography, and multiple partners at the airports themselves. This is a significant enterprise which requires significant capital and we felt very good about Universal Hydrogen’s ability to deliver on that. So, that’s the reason why we ended up making the decision to go with the Universal Hydrogen approach in their powertrain.
Excellent. And this is going to look like a really good business decision if fuel stays the way it is. And we hear from a lot of our customers that fuel sustainability is top of mind when it comes to how they run their operations.
I’m a big believer that — sorry to interrupt there, but I’m a big believer that it’s more than just pure economics. What’s really [the case] — and people are welcome to disagree with me on this, but at some point we get to [the point] if fuel consumption, let’s call it carbon fuels consumption, goes down substantially, one might argue the price of fuels will go down substantially, because it’s supply and demand, there’s not as much demand for that. That could be argued true. But I think what will start to happen is we will see the effects of carbon taxing and other things that are done by governments, global state governments, or national governments, who are going to tax carbon emitting sources of energy. And for the purpose of that, they are going to purposely try to drive this out of the marketplace, not withstanding what the price of extraction is. And at the end of the day, I think we’re seeing a willingness to tax the carbon and I think that’s what’s going to eventually happen. And while there will be ebbs and flows of that, and some countries more earlier adopters than others, many of us remember back to the days when the EU attempted — this has been maybe 8, 9 years ago or maybe something close to that — attempted a fairly comprehensive carbon tax on European airlines. And it really kind of fell apart because they didn’t have enough continuity between how are you going to tax in different regimes and non-EU countries, and so on and so forth. But eventually, this gets to a point where there’s enough momentum around multiple national governments that this starts to happen. And we believe that this will happen and we’re trying to be ahead of that curve when it does.
That gives you the opportunity to drive the change and be an active partner in it, as opposed to joining the crowd later once all of these decisions are made, these infrastructure decisions that you talk about, what the leading technology is going to be. You can either lead that charge or you can be led by other people and have less control over it. So, it makes a lot of sense to be an early adopter in this space.
It’s a big bet, that’s for sure.
It’s a big bet, but if it pays off, it’s going to be a very big payoff. I think, anyway. I think you’re on the right track here.
Thanks, Chris. We think so, too.
With that, we’re running up on the time, we’re going for about half an hour here. So, question for you — you said that you reference that you have traveled over 3 million miles. Is that what you said?
Yeah, I’ve been a pretty big frequent player.
Wow, okay. So, you get that separate check-in when you go and all that kind of stuff, I can imagine?
Well… No, not that often. Just a lot of time doing it. Many, many years.
Fair enough. So, you spent the time in the line. Where’s your favorite place to go?
Well, that’s a difficult question because generally, I would say I like to travel, period. I love the US west. Domestically, any chance I get to go out west into the mountains or to the oceans of California, or Colorado. I’m kind of in my dream spot. But also I love Europe, I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia. I love foreign cultures and it’s been a great opportunity and I’ve been very blessed to have a chance to experience those cultures and get to know people around the globe.
Well, if you like mountains, I don’t know if you’ve been up to Calgary yet, but we are 45 minutes away from Banff, Canmore and some of the most beautiful ski you’ve ever seen. So, next time you’re in Calgary, we’re going to have to take you up. And you said you’ve been there before, but we’d love to take you up again!
I have! I bought my very first — I don’t own it anymore, but I bought my very first airplane out of Calgary.
Wow, okay. So you’re very familiar [with Calgary]!
Yeah. I flew it home from Calgary, I was living in Washington at the time. I picked it up, bought it, flew around Banff and all over there, and then took it down through Glacier National Park and out west to Washington.
What was that plane? What type of plane was that?
It was a Grumman tiger.
Oh, wow. Very cool. Not the citation you were talking about earlier, that’s is?
No, no, no. Haha!
A couple million away.
Yeah, a couple million cheaper for sure.
Well, we look forward to seeing Connect Airlines’ progress as they grow and seeing you guys hit the skies. So, thank you so much for some time on the JumpSeat and we look forward to having more conversations with you in the future.
Thanks a lot, Chris, I really enjoy it. Appreciate it. Have a great night.
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