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Greg McDougall, CEO of Harbour Air Seaplanes, at the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre in Vancouver, on Monday March 25, 2019. Darryl Dyck/The Globe and MailDARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Harbour Air hit a historic milestone in August. That’s when the Richmond, B.C.–based airline, which specializes in seaplanes, completed the first direct all-electric point-to-point test flight (that is, the first such flight that landed in a different place than it took off). A retrofitted De Havilland Beaver, with its internal-combustion engine swapped out for an electric motor and battery system, flew just over 70 kilometres, from Vancouver to Victoria, in 20 minutes. It’s a major moment for the development of electric commercial air travel—and one that took an innovation-obsessed management stance to achieve.

“In a highly regulated business like aviation, there’s a tendency for major airlines to not be all that visionary. The regulatory side of the business evolves into a strict bureaucracy, and there’s a can’t-do rather than a can-do attitude,” says founder and CEO Greg McDougall. “Of course, when you’re operating in a highly regulated industry, you have to have people who pay close attention to the rules. But innovation in aviation requires a team of like-minded people who share a vision, and a willingness to be disruptive and change the rules for the better.”

Harbour Air was in the business of environmentally focused aviation long before it was cool—with the use of carbon offsets, it became the world’s first carbon-neutral airline in 2007. McDougall, who’s been running the company for 40 years, says the focus was a natural outgrowth of his employees’ values. “Even though we fly older aircraft, we’re always trying to stay on the leading edge,” he says. “So looking at disruptive technology is a natural thing for us. I think people find that exciting and interesting—rather than doing the same thing every day, our culture pushes people toward novelty and discovery.”

Innovation in aviation requires a team of like-minded people who share a vision, and a willingness to be disruptive and change the rules for the better... People seem to want to work for a company that’s progressive and exciting

Harbour Air CEO Greg McDougall

McDougall says the pandemic was an illustrative litmus test for the strength of his management strategy. While other airlines experienced major staffing issues, Harbour Air came through relatively unscathed. “People seem to want to work for a company that’s progressive and exciting,” he says. “Harbour Air is an interesting place to work.” Case in point: in terms of sales, fleet and the number of people on its team, the company has effectively doubled in size over the past several years.

Innovating in the field of electric aviation doesn’t just apply to the technological side of things. “When the rules don’t exist, you also have to invent on the regulatory side,” he says. “That’s really the tough part, because now you have to get something certified that’s never been certified before. Fortunately, we’re finding people on the regulatory and political side of things that share our vision. But it all comes down to having the right people around you and encouraging them to pull in the same direction.”

The next major milestone McDougall hopes to achieve? Flying the first paying passenger on an all-electric plane from point A to point B. Pandemic-related supply chain issues have pushed out the timeline, but that day may come as soon as 2024.

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