Portage is home to a one-of-a-kind business called Quality Aircraft Interiors.  Owned and operated by Noel and Leann Smith, QAI does upholstery work on commercial aircraft from their world headquarters just southwest of Portage, and hold a patent to a product they invented.

noel smith sign
We caught up with Noel Smith and chatted with him about his unique business and related invention.

 

noel smith plane chairs
HnH:  How did you go from being an upholstery shop to this?

Noel:  Well I’d been working, doing a lot of furniture, and so much of the new furniture was coming out disposable so we needed to find an alternative way to may a living.

Being a pilot, I always liked hanging around airports and I noticed there was an awful lot of aircraft interiors that were looking pretty ratty.

It took us anywhere between 8-10 years to finally get the opportunity to work on commercial aircraft and we haven’t looked back ever since.

 

HnH:  Do you work on any furniture or other upholstery anymore?

Noel:  No, we are exclusively aircraft.

 

HnH:  What hoops do you need to jump through to do this work?

Noel:  It took us about 4 years to get certified.  We had to write manuals on how we were going to do the work.  We had to research it, go back to school and take some courses which was a lot of fun when you are not real young anymore.

And you have to keep up with it.  The rules and regulations are constantly changing and evolving and it takes a lot of time and effort.

We can’t make mistakes, there is no room for error, everything has to be done right the first time.

noel smith certificate

 

HnH:  So would you say you need the skill set of an upholsterer, scientist and engineer?

Noel:  That’s a lot of it.  You have to figure out how the stuff works and goes together before hand.  You have to ask a lot of questions, the internet has a lot of misinformation, sometimes they don’t have the foggiest, so it takes a lot of time to research what you are doing.

 

HnH:  So how do you build an aircraft business in Portage?

Noel:  Well, (laughs)  just do good work, treat your customers well, go to bat for them.   We’ve had a contract where the plane came in at midnight, and we had to have all the seats done and installed by 8pm that night.

 

HnH:  So do you have a landing strip here?

Noel:  No, we’ve gone out and worked on the planes in the hanger, from Winnipeg, Dryden, to Kenora.   I spent a week and a half out in Whitehorse doing an install for a guy who had a plane registered civil and he needed it registered commercial.  The only way he could do that is to have it installed by a certified upholsterer.  We had a great time out there.  It was in March and it was a lot warmer than it was here.

 

HnH:  Who would make up your list of clients?

Noel:  Most of the aircraft are commercial.  We do a lot of King Airs, the larger ones,  we’ve also worked on a fleet of Challengers.

We do work with Calm Air, Fast Air, and we also have Westjet and we do some work for Bombardier.  We’ve done work from down in Aruba, Africa, Equador, and Guatemela.

 

HnH:  So did you get to go to those places?

Noel:  No, not a one.

 

HnH:  Who does the work?

Noel:  It’s mainly my wife and I.  Trying to find trained people who can work with the materials – they just aren’t out there.  Or at least I haven’t been able to find them.

 

HnH:  How many other people do this type of work in Canada?

Noel:  We are the only upholstery shop in Canada that is certified.

 

HnH:  We understand you’ve invented a special product.  Can you explain?

Noel:   The product that I developed is an oxygen cylinder restraint system.  It’s for people who are carrying personal use oxygen cylinders aboard aircraft.  It’s a way to restrain their tanks under the aircraft seat.

noel smith oxygen holder

 

HnH:  How did you come to invent this?

 

Noel:  I had a client who had a problem and they approached us with it.  I thought about it then went to bed.  I got up about 3am and did some drawings then got back up the next morning and made a prototype.

 

HnH:  Do you own the patent?

Noel:  I own the patent.  We have 4-5 clients who are using it currently.  Westjet Encore is putting it into its new fleet of Bombardier Q400 aircraft.  It’s certified for approximately 22 models of aircraft including some of  the Boeing, Airbus and Embraers, the complete Bombardier family, Saab’s and ATRs.

All of them are made right here in Portage, in this shop.

 

HnH:  So what’s the future of the business?

Noel:  I’d like to find somebody who is interested in working with us.  I’m not the youngest fellow (58), but I can still see myself doing this into my seventies because not much is heavy anymore and it’s fun.

 

For more information check out their website by clicking here:  Quality Aircraft Interiors

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