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CEO grad pilots record shipment of protective medical gear

‘The first thing you have to ask in a crisis is, what can I give back?’
May 8, 2020
By Molly Hamilton

Antonov AN-225, lands at Mirabel with a shipment of PPE One of the world’s largest cargo planes, the Antonov AN-225, lands at Mirabel with a shipment of PPE. Photo: Célian Thibault

Before COVID-19 changed business as usual worldwide, Nolinor Aviation typically flew passengers to Northern Canada and sports franchises like the Montreal Alouettes around the country.

When the pandemic hit, however, Marco Prud’Homme, MBA (International Aviation) 09, knew he had to act swiftly.

The CEO of the charter airline and his staff promptly contacted Tridan, a Montreal-based company that had secured a contract from the Quebec government to expedite a large shipment of personal protective equipment (PPE) from China. In a move that proved decisive to the effort, Prud’Homme and Nolinor managed to get access to one of the largest planes ever manufactured — the Antonov AN-225.

After a stop in Alaska, the Ukraine-based aircraft landed in Mirabel on May 1 with its critical cargo for front-line medical workers. As it touched down, hundreds of people gathered to watch.

Prud’Homme took some time this week to answer questions about the exceptional event and explain how his company has adjusted to the adversity imposed by the pandemic.

Can you tell us about the logistics of this operation?

Marco Prud’Homme: It took about a month to prepare. A few days before our flight, we learned that other companies, such as CargoJet, went to China and came back empty because of customs problems. So we chose to use Tianjin airport instead of Shanghai, since it had less traffic and complications.

From there, we had to bring the cargo to the airport, clear customs and load the aircraft. Then the Antonov took off on Thursday, April 30.

What other challenges did you have to overcome?

Marco Prud’Homme, MBA 09, CEO of Nolinor Aviation Marco Prud’Homme, MBA 09, CEO of Nolinor Aviation. | Photo: Mixte Magazine

MP: There were quite a few. I think the biggest was communication, which wasn’t really possible in English. But we were lucky because an ex-journalist from Radio-Canada, Jean-François Lépine, put us in contact with someone who was able to be our eyes on the ground in China and apprise us of what was happening.

After the aircraft landed at around 9 p.m., the unloading was going well until we hit a problem. The equipment that we had on-site was using fuel that discharged carbon monoxide into the cabin. We had to shut everything down and come up with a whole new way to unload.

We took some rollers — the kind you might see at the grocery store — and lined them up from the trucks all the way down to the aircraft. It’s a 42-metre-long cabin so it was a long process. We had 20 people working non-stop around the clock. When we finished unloading it was 5:15 a.m. We filled about nine ten-wheeled trucks. I think we’re going to be good for protective equipment for a while.

Nolinor planes are also delivering supplies to northern communities. Can you tell us more about that project?

Yes, so that flight took off on May 4. Two weeks ago we said we would offer a free cargo flight to Northern Canada. Food Banks Canada called us and asked if they could deliver food to Iqaluit, Nunavut. We brought 22,000 pounds of food and supplies. My understanding is that it’s going to generate 1,200 bags of groceries for people.

Why was this initiative personally important?

In my mind, the first thing you have to ask yourself in a crisis is, what can I give back? We have many aircraft that are idle right now. Our employees are paid, the insurance is covered and maintenance on the aircraft is sound — all we have to do is pay the fuel.

Did your experience at the John Molson School of Business help prepare you for this at all?

The Global Aviation MBA program gave me a better, clearer vision of how to get things done and solve problems. I think the main advantage I got from all the courses was the drive to know more, keep learning and get a better perspective on what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis.

What advice can you offer fellow members of the Concordia community at this difficult time?

If you take the risk of looking at a problem in an unorthodox way, you’ll find opportunity. At one point everybody was laying off employees in the aviation industry. We decided to retain a core of our staff, about 30 per cent, and that gave us the flexibility to be open to the unexpected — like the Antonov flight.


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