Opinion: A pilot-training crisis is threatening to make Canada’s aviation sector unsustainable—which would lead to under-served northern communities and more cancelled flight
This article was written by Associate Professor Suzanne Kearns for MacLean's magazine.
Canada has a long and proud aviation history, recognized as a country of chief importance in global aviation, with an aviation sector made up of organizations that rank among the best in the world. The industry transports travellers, but also moves cargo, provides medical and logistical services, and serves as a crucial lifeline to northern and remote communities. In fact, Canada has the third-largest aerospace sector in the world, generating $29.8 billion in annual revenues, 211,000 direct and indirect jobs, and five per cent of the jobs in the North. We also have excellent infrastructure for flight education; we produce about 1,200 new commercial pilots each year.
Yet meeting the current level of demand in the aviation industry already represents a struggle. According to the Canadian Council for Aviation & Aerospace, half of the flight operators in Canada say that finding qualified pilots is a significant challenge, with some reporting flight cancellations due to lack of flight crew. It’s only going to get harder on that front, too: while Canada indeed produces 1,200 new commercial pilots annually, only about 500 new pilots join the Canadian industry each year. Many of the 1,200 are international students or are drawn away by higher-paying jobs elsewhere in the world.
With all of those headwinds, it adds up to a projected Canadian shortage of almost 3,000 pilots by 2025—and for reference, Air Canada currently employs about 3,500 pilots in total—which will only lead to more delays and cancellations that affect the travelling Canadian public. “We are facing a crisis as there is not the requisite level of new pilots entering the system to sustain the pilot ‘pipeline,’ ” says Heather Bell, the chair of the B.C. Aviation Council. “This pilot shortage will have severe and critical impacts not only on our economy and operators but on our remote and Indigenous communities.”
Aviators are increasingly choosing to fly higher paying position in urban areas, rather than positions in the North. This threatens northern communities that rely on air transportation for vital supplies and equipment. “Unless we are miraculously able to find qualified flight instructors, we will have to limit the number of new students we can take on this year and turn away work,” says Colette Morin, the owner and chief pilot of Glacier Air.
“Pilots are gravitating toward major airlines in record numbers, as larger airlines aggressively recruit from a continuously replenished pool of pilots from smaller carriers,” says Robert Deluce, the president and CEO of Porter Airlines. “Eventually, the pool will shrink, which could destabilize the entire industry.”
Our country cannot afford to lose the connections to people, business, and infrastructure around the world that aviation provides. Without action, we risk making the whole sector—one that’s vital to Canada’s economy and our way of life—unsustainable.