From pandemic-related travel restrictions to extreme weather events, Canada’s travel industry has recently navigated unprecedented uncertainty. And now, with travel demand back to 2019 levels, airlines are facing their next turbulent period: a shortage of qualified pilots.
According to Transport Canada, in a typical pre-pandemic year, about 1,100 pilot licenses were issued. When supplemented by internationally trained pilots, it was usually more than enough to meet the needs of carriers as large as WestJet and Air Canada, through to regional, charter and cargo airlines.
But as flight demand has plummeted in 2020, the number of new pilots receiving their papers has also fallen. Government data shows fewer than 500 licenses were awarded in 2020, a figure that fell to less than 300 in 2021 and just 238 last year.
The department told CBC News in a statement that while labor shortages in the airline sector have been “identified as a priority area for action”, there are currently no plans to ease the regulations. But the agency says it is doing what it can to “increase the competitiveness of the Canadian flight training industry as well as improve the viability of aviation careers to address any shortages.”
Whatever changes are coming will not help anyone in the short term, and travelers are already seeing the impact of the current labor shortage in the industry.
Staff shortages were a factor in the cancellation of 67 flights by charter airline Sunwing in the last two weeks of December, along with extreme weather conditions.
Salaries for experienced pilots generally increase faster and more at major airlines than at most others, so they are usually able to choose from those available. This causes shortages everywhere else.
The head of the Air Transport Association of Canada says it’s been a simmering issue for many years, even before the pandemic.
“We haven’t had enough drivers for a long time, mainly at the regional level,” said John McKenna.
Long and expensive process
Obtaining a commercial license is the final step in a multi-year process to become a pilot, a journey that can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years.
In Canada, for many, that trip ends with a dream job with WestJet or Air Canada, but due to the expense and time involved in training a new pilot, large airlines often hire the best employees from small carriers instead of methodically developing their own.
“Their fishing grounds are the regional carriers. And the regional carriers go down to the smaller carriers, the air taxi groups…those levels have been suffering for many years,” McKenna said.
Canada’s two largest airlines told CBC News in email statements that while there is indeed higher than normal demand for pilots at the moment, both are managing to meet their needs.
“As a major global carrier operating the most modern and largest aircraft, we are a popular destination for talented pilots,” AIr Canada said. “As a result, we are able to attract pilots as needed.”
“We have and continue to manage and plan our operations responsibly to meet the anticipated demand of our customers and we have all of our network staff to support our operations,” WestJet said.
This is not the case for everyone. Smaller airlines often have so few pilots on staff that it doesn’t take much to keep planes from flying.
In the fall, Sunwing requested to bring in more than 60 temporary foreign workers to meet the demand for pilots, but that request was denied, exacerbating the chaos seen at the end of 2022. The airline has since canceled nearly all flights from Saskatchewan and most from Manitoba for the remainder of the winter travel season.
The pandemic has also reduced the number
It’s not just the big boys gobbling up all the skilled pilots, either. Many have simply left the profession during the pandemic.
“Two years ago, to the day, literally almost every driver [was] unemployed,” says Dave Boston, a pilot with 25 years of experience who is also the man behind Edmonton’s aviation job site, Pilot Career Centre.
Faced with furloughs and layoffs at airlines big and small, many pilots tried to wait, but many simply moved on, he told CBC News in an interview.
“A lot of people who had businesses or other interests, after maybe six months to a year, had to put food on the table and they left the industry,” Boston said.
For the remaining pilots, headhunting is the new norm. He says he hears every day from airlines desperate because they can’t find the staff or they just lost another one. “It’s very common for pilots, unfortunately, to work there for six months [then] get a surprise interview they weren’t expecting and then they walk away,” he said.
“It’s a real challenge right now.”
One person hoping to take on this challenge is Zona Savic, who will soon be graduating from one of Canada’s top aviation schools, Seneca College in Peterborough, Ontario.
While she planned to go into engineering, she joined the air cadets while in high school and was soon bitten by the aviation bug.
“From the moment I was on that plane, I knew that was what I was going to do,” she told CBC News in an interview.
She’s on track to get her pilot’s license soon, and while she can take additional training to become an instructor herself, she says it’s a burden for her to know she won’t have to. worry about finding a job.
And even better for the industry, it has no qualms about moving up the ranks at smaller carriers doing niche flights and remote routes.
“I love the feeling of flying, so if that’s what I’m doing, I don’t care if I’m in Paris or Nunavut,” she says. “Everything is good for me, as long as I can experience it.”