Aviation boss says opportunities abound
The Covid-19 pandemic that shook the world was “just a warm-up” to the economic impact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would have on Bermuda’s aviation regulator.
This is according to Thomas Dunstan, the director-general of the Bermuda Civil Aviation Authority, who was recognised recently in World’s Leadersmagazine as one of the world's most influential leaders in the aerospace and aviation industry in 2023.
The magazine ran a 1,600-word feature on Mr Dunstan outlining the work the aviation regulator does under his leadership. The BCAA is responsible for regulating and overseeing aviation in Bermuda, including all aircraft registered under the Bermuda Aircraft Registry.
While the pandemic forced the authority to navigate remote working, and new inspection and maintenance practices, it was the international sanctions imposed on Russia that had a “catastrophic” impact.
On March 12, 2022, the BCAA was forced to suspend airworthiness certificates for more than 700 Bermudian-registered aircraft operated by Russian airlines, which resulted in an 85 per cent reduction in the authority’s income.
It is the largest offshore registry and is tenth overall globally in terms of size, yet this year found itself running a $3 million deficit.
Growth, such as building business relations with China and the Asia-Pacific region, and the Middle East, and diversification have been key to weathering the storm, Mr Dunstan said.
“As things were improving from Covid, there was a sigh of relief that we succeeded and stayed in business,” he said.
“The pandemic forced us into full remote working, and the nature of business inspections and maintenance changed.
“A lot of our staff do travel, and we are often working remotely, so we had a lot of the infrastructure in place anyway but it was about ensuring those who work in the office were able to work from home.
“We could send inspectors out to do some physical inspections, but we had to do more desktop inspections, and have people send us documentation, photos and even videos.
“The regulatory business is moving towards risk-based oversight where we assess the risk of a client and, depending on how well they do, we will vary the frequency of inspections. It’s targeting the higher-risk areas and utilising resources more efficiently.
“Then, when Russia went to war with Ukraine, the world was turned upside down. It was like the last three years of Covid was a warm-up — the war impacted us much more in different ways.
“Throughout our business and strategy plan, we always planned for the aircraft registered in Bermuda that operated for Russian airlines to eventually transition over to Russian authorities for oversight, but because there are so many of them it would have taken five years or so.”
Thomas Dunstan worked at the Department of Airport Operations for a decade, during which time he advanced from supervisor to manager, Air Operations.
During his tenure at the LF Wade International Airport, he played a crucial role in its certification process and was instrumental in the development of Quality Assurance and Safety Management Systems.
In 2006, he joined the Bermuda Department of Civil Aviation, serving as its director until October 2016 when it became the Quango now known as the Bermuda Civil Aviation Authority.
Since then, he has served as the director-general of the BCAA, overseeing its operations and regulatory functions.
The BCAA was forced to reduce its expenditure by implementing cost-cutting measures across the organisation, including a move to reduced office space and not filling vacant posts.
Where the organisation had 37 full-time staff and 25 contracted workers before the invasion, it now has 30 full-time staff and about 12 contracted workers.
“We are always looking at opportunities to do more business. We’ve been working on the China and Asia-Pacific markets for some time — we’ve been working on those for the last six years because of the growth there and the fact that there are a lot of high-net-worth individuals there.
“Bermuda as a whole is also targeting the Asia-Pacific in the financial world. It was good tie-in for us.
“The other market we are investing in is the Middle East — again because of the growth there.
“The trends are for increased use and purchase of business aircraft over next five to ten years.
“Through the pandemic, businesses liked that they were going on business craft — it was more convenient, and now they are looking at purchasing their own craft. We have seen some green shoots in that area.”
Mr Dunstan said that the BCAA ran at a $3 million deficit in 2023 with expenditure at about $9 million.
He said it is his hope to reduce that deficit and break even within the next three years.
The World’s Leaders article reported that Mr Dunstan "sees his own growth as intertwined with the growth of the organisation, striving to advance in sync with its progress“.
As director-general of the BCAA, he has reached the pinnacle of his career in terms of Bermuda aviation.
He told The Royal Gazette: “Opportunities in Bermuda in aviation are limited. In a lot of ways I am at the top of that career path, so looking at something more global would be the next logical step.
“With remote working it is more possible to do that whether in a consultancy-type role or directorship.
“Bermuda is my home and I don’t think there is a rush for me to leave. I love what I do, it’s my passion. However, at some point, the reins have to be handed over and we have a great team of aviation professionals here.”
Asked how he felt to be recognised as an industry leader, Mr Dunstan, who was also recognised as Aviation Industry Executive of the Year (Global) in the 2019 Business Worldwide CEO Awards, said: “It’s always an honour when you are approached by organisations like this on a global scale. To be recognised at that level is an honour.”