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A PAL Airlines Bombardier Dash 8-300 takes off from Montreal Pierre Elliott Trudeau Int'l Airport.SOPA Images/Reuters

Air Canada has tapped St. John’s-based PAL Airlines to boost its flight schedule in the Atlantic provinces amid a shortage of pilots.

PAL will fly as many as six De Havilland Canada Dash 8 aircraft for Air Canada AC-T on regional routes beginning in July, according to a preliminary agreement separately announced by the companies on Tuesday.

The five-year deal is intended to cover the shortfall of pilots at Chorus Aviation’s Jazz Aviation, which is Air Canada’s long-time operator of regional flights in the East.

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Air Canada made the deal as it expands its schedule to meet pent-up demand for travel, said spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick – describing the PAL agreement as a “bridging” arrangement.

PAL, owned by Exchange Income Corporation, will acquire the aircraft and fly them in addition to its own fleet of 13 planes.

“PAL Airlines’ proposed agreement with Air Canada will grow our operation, build our ability to provide regional connectivity and deepen our presence in markets who have always supported our operations,” said Joseph Galimberti, a spokesman for PAL.

According to Air Canada’s agreement with Chorus, pilots can switch to the larger carrier and retain part of the seniority they earned at Jazz. Many have done so to fill vacancies left by pilots who have taken more lucrative jobs at U.S.-based airlines, leaving Chorus unable to meet Air Canada’s fast-rising demand, experts say.

Air Canada “has been requiring [Chorus] to graduate a much higher than normal number of pilots from [Chorus] up to [Air Canada] under its pilot mobility arrangement – primarily due to rapid increase in demand for pilots associated with the reconstitution of its own main-line capacity,” said Walter Spracklin, a stock analyst with Royal Bank of Canada, in a note to clients.

Air Canada “was not able to pull from labour pools that existed pre-pandemic due to retirements during the pandemic that have kept the pilot labour market tight.”

John Gradek, who teaches aviation management at McGill University, said the trend of larger airlines poaching pilots from smaller carriers is worrisome because it puts regional service at risk.

“This same phenomena happened in the U.S. a year ago, and is now happening here,” Mr. Gradek said.

Almost 500 planes operated by U.S. regional airlines are parked because there is no one to fly them, according to press reports. Larger airlines are hiring the pilots at a time when the flight schools are not graduating enough crew.

Chorus said in a press release that the agreement with PAL will not have a financial impact.

Tyrone Cotie, vice-president of Chorus, said in an interview that the pilot shortage is industry-wide and is a result of the large number who retired in the pandemic.

“We’re in a catch-up phase,” Mr. Cotie said.

A 2018 report from the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace warned that Canada will be short 3,000 pilots by 2025. Commercial flight schools, including those owned by PAL’s parent company and Chorus, issue a total of 1,200 licences a year. This figure plunged in the pandemic, at the same time as many left the industry.

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