Electric Avenue: Behind Harbour Air’s bid to become the world’s first fossil fuel-free airline

Setting trends is nothing new for the B.C. outfit, but its latest move could make history.

Credit: Tanya Goehring

Greg McDougall is slated to fly Harbour Air’s first e-plane prototype in early December

Setting trends is nothing new for the B.C. airline, but its latest move could make history

Greg McDougall has yet to make the cover of this magazine, and that’s probably fine in his books.

“You ever hear of the BCBusiness curse?” he asks, reclining in an ergonomic chair in one of Harbour Air Seaplanes‘ downtown Vancouver boardrooms. “We used to joke in the early 1990s that anytime anyone got on the cover, they’d be bankrupt within the year.”

We didn’t go through the back issues to confirm McDougall’s anecdote, but thankfully, recent cover subjects have avoided that fate (at least to our knowledge). Either way, it’s hard to see any kind of curse slowing down McDougall. The 63-year-old CEO of Harbour Air has been something of an unstoppable force since co-founding the airline in 1982.

He was a pilot back then, working for a couple of companies travelling up and down the B.C. coast, mostly on service routes for forestry workers. McDougall and fellow pilot Cliff Oakley leased two planes from a land development company they flew for and started putting together the business plan in earnest. They did the flying, the scheduling, everything.

By all accounts, it looked a lot different from today’s edition of the business. Harbour Air now has about 300 to 350 full-time employees (plus more than 450 workers during peak season) and serves half a million annual passengers with its fleet of just over 40 planes. It also became North America’s first fully carbon-neutral airline in 2007 through the use of offsets.

That last point is where McDougall sees Harbour Air continuing to grow. There are no rock-solid plans to expand the company’s route map; the downtown Vancouver-to-Seattle track, launched in early 2018, has been packed full of late.

But in a pink dress shirt and beige slacks, McDougall talks calmly and lucidly about a much bigger move—to an all-electric fleet, the first of its kind anywhere.

There’s a long road ahead until that becomes a reality. But McDougall, who as a young child dreamed of becoming a pilot while watching planes from his family’s home on Nelson Island at the western edge of the Sunshine Coast, will fly the first prototype in early December.

“It’s part of the process, and any failure is part of that process,” he says of the complex journey before him. “There will be some glitches along the way, but I don’t think we’ll fail.”

The spark of an idea

McDougall says Harbour Air first started talking about the possibility of going electric three or four years ago. “It became a matter of, OK, how do we execute it?” he recalls. “There was a lot of talk about funds from grants and different things to be able to help fuel the economic side of it. But a lot of them seemed to be fraught with a huge application process and different bureaucracy.”

So the idea was put on the shelf for a couple of  years—until a Redmond, Washington–based aviation outfit called MagniX noticed what Harbour Air was up to in the state and saw an opportunity. Founded in Australia (the company still has an office there but has moved its headquarters to Redmond), MagniX is a world leader in electric motor manufacturing.

When MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski and McDougall met for coffee in Vancouver late last year, things progressed quickly. “In North America, aviation contributes 12 percent to the C02 that’s emitted; globally it’s anywhere between 2 and 4 percent,” says Ganzarski, who found Harbour Air’s commitment to the environment compelling. “We’re both very aware that it’s not something that’s sustainable or something that’s OK, especially for the Pacific Northwest.”

Of course, Harbour Air was also in a uniquely advantageous position to take on electrification. Its routes are shorter than most, and Ganzarski and McDougall settled on the fleet’s Beaver aircraft as the ideal starting point. The de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver seaplane, which can carry up to six passengers, usually flies routes to the tune of 15 to 25 minutes.

“We have a perfect complementary need to push ourselves forward and, more importantly, push the industry forward in what it means to go electric, what it can do for airlines, the environment, consumers,” Ganzarski says. “Basically, lower price for tickets, no emissions and no reliance on fossil fuels, which are all good things for the industry.”

The reality is that without MagniX and its electric propulsion expertise and investment, Harbour Air wouldn’t be able to make the transition. “It really accelerated everything by multiples, because all of a sudden there we were with a willing partner to help us on the economic side of things,” McDougall admits.

It makes the endeavour a worthy investment for Harbour Air, which stands to gain something fierce once the conversion is complete.

“It has the potential to have huge economic benefits—there’s no fossil fuel burn, which is a significant part of our cost, and the energy replacement and the battery system per flight is infinitesimal compared to jet fuel,” McDougall says. “And the simplicity of the motors themselves, compared to turbine motors and pistons, which we still have on the Beavers, you’re looking at 10,000 hours of service out of an electric motor before you even have to look at it, very simple.”

Technically speaking

So how does an old dog learn new tricks? Or, more accurately, how does a baby boomer who plied his trade flying planes become an expert on cutting-edge technology when most of his peers are just now finding out about emojis?

McDougall, who has no formal post-secondary education besides flight school, credits his ability to stay with the times to a global group called the Young Presidents Organization. “I’m not a young president anymore, but they have what’s called YPO Gold, if you’re over 50. So I’m definitely gold,” jokes the Harbour Air boss, who’s been a card-carrying member of the Vancouver chapter since 1995.

“I was exposed to a lot of other very sharp businesspeople and the educational programs that came along with that,” McDougall adds. “It’s a very dynamic organization, and I was able to take advantage of that and learn about a lot of things that otherwise I wouldn’t have known.”

YPO holds a wide range of events, but the shift away from fossil fuels is a ubi-quitous topic. “It became pretty evident to me that electrification of transportation is inevitable—one of the last things that’ll be easy to electrify is aircraft,” McDougall says. “And the reason for that is because the amount of energy that’s required to replace internal combustion or fossil fuels is huge.”

 Others in the industry aren’t surprised that Harbour Air decided to flip the switch, as it were. “I knew people were looking at this worldwide—they’re working on it, no question,” says Steve Holding, chief instructor for aviation technical programs at BCIT. Holding cites a British company called Faradair Aerospace, which, like Harbour Air, flies short hauls. That airline reportedly hopes to have its electric planes certified by 2025.

But Holding is already anticipating that these companies will have an impact on his curriculum. “We’re right now starting to have that discussion, how we integrate this type of technology into our lesson plans and our overall goals for our students,” he says. “We are regulated by Transport Canada to teach certain topics, so we have to make sure those are taught first, then we try to fit in new and emerging technologies.”

Certifiably tough

Ganzarski and McDougall hope that Harbour Air can get fully certified by 2021. But that won’t be a walk in the park. Holding notes that “it’s a major technical challenge, and comes down to offsetting the weight of the battery systems and the regulatory regime you’re flying under.” The latter part of that assessment could be tough, he warns: “It’s a long process with a lot of paperwork involved. Transport Canada is a very conservative organization.”

As things stand, Transport Canada doesn’t have a path to certify electric aircraft for commercial use. “Any new technology like this, it’s cutting-edge, complex. And our first concern is safety, so that’s why we like to get involved early,” says Terry Beech, Burnaby North–Seymour MP who, before the 2019 election, served as parliamentary secretary to the federal minister of transport.

So even though Harbour Air hasn’t yet filed an application for certification, the federal government has been entrenched in the process. In fact, Transport Canada recently had a familiarization meeting to better understand the technology involved with MagniX’s electric propulsion unit.

“It depends on how thorough the applicant is and how many issues there are, because safety is our top issue and no corners get cut in these situations,” says Beech when asked how long it might take for Harbour Air to win federal approval. “The only example off the top of my head is [Bombardier’s] C Series aircraft. From prototype to certification it took about eight years, so it can be quite lengthy.”

That’s obviously a sobering example for McDougall, who was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame this year. But if he’s nervous, he doesn’t show it. Although Transport Canada doesn’t have the electrification certification process mapped out yet, the Federal Aviation Administration (the U.S. body that oversees aviation regulation) is “a bit further ahead,” he explains.

Harbour Air is working with both organizations and will take the “path of least resistance,” says McDougall, adding that “there’s a bilateral [agreement between the U.S. and Canada], so anything that gets certified in one country is easily certifiable in another.”

Two years might still seem like a stretch from where Harbour Air is today, but again, if McDougall is concerned, he isn’t letting on.

“The mantra for me here is the disruptor-being-disrupted thing,” he says, noting that Harbour Air got where it is by embracing change and smart, aggressive expansion—two strategies that aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

“If we all just sit here looking out the window, one day there’s going to be something flying out there that’s going to rock your world. And I want to be the one flying it, not the one watching it.”

He’s already done that, when he was six years old, staring up into the sky on the edge of the Sunshine Coast.

Credit: Courtesy of Harbour Air

Flight Patterns

3 – Types of aircraft employed by Harbour Air: Beaver, Otter and Twin Otter

18 – Routes flown by Harbour Air

81.6 million – Passengers travelling by Canadian aircraft in 2016

$23 billion – Total operating revenue for the industry that year

$1.4 billion – Net operating income for the industry that year

50 – Percentage below 2005 levels that Air Canada has agreed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 2050