In the labour-force wreckage wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s commercial airline pilots stand out as an anomaly.
No other group of white-collar workers with their level of training, skill and pay levels was let go in other sectors of the economy over the past two years as the country was reshaped by infection and uncertainty. Not in banking, not in education and not in government.
Pilots making six-figure salaries and operating some of the world’s most sophisticated flying machines joined coffee baristas, hotel cleaners and hairdressers in the ranks of the unemployed – all workers in industries hardest hit by the health crisis. Thousands of pilots lost their jobs. They are the casualties of an airline sector that stopped almost overnight and a government that experts say lacked the leadership and foresight to properly plot its restart.
The fallout of that failure is clear. And it stretches from the baggage carousel to the cockpit.
Demand for air travel is back with unexpected force this year, but the supply of pilots isn’t there to match for a number of reasons. Many are still coming back up to speed in training after months away. Others have left Canada or the industry entirely for more predictable jobs.
Airlines are scrambling daily to find the pilots to fly planes, sometimes just hours before scheduled takeoff. Delays on the ground at airports and changes to federal rules governing pilot flight hours have compounded the problem.
“It’s like if we had a snowstorm every day for the past four months,” said Louis-Éric Mongrain, a pilot with Air Transat who comments regularly on the industry in the media. Airline crew schedulers, the men and women whose job it is to find pilots and flight attendants to staff a flight, are “going nuts” dealing with irregular operations, he said.
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For weeks this summer, public attention has focused on the visible consequences of an industry incapable of processing the fallout of reopening after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted: waiting halls bursting with luggage at Pearson and Trudeau airports, and travellers lamenting hours spent in line at customs and border control. In sum: robust demand trying to move through a much-diminished system of understaffed airports and airlines.
But for the professionals in the blazers and epaulettes, a related storyline is playing out behind the scenes – one that exposes the shortcomings of Canada’s approach to aviation. Simply put, there aren’t enough pilots at the moment, and those who are working are sometimes pushing the maximum of allowable hours.
Meanwhile, the pipeline of new recruits isn’t as robust as in years past, and that’s hitting carriers big and small. Without a more deliberate effort to improve oversight and management of the country’s airline industry, many experts warn we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes again.
The life of one Montreal-based pilot illustrates the situation. His mobile phone rings steadily, sometimes in the early-morning hours, with requests from his airline asking if he wants to helm an upcoming flight that’s not on his regular schedule. It’s overtime work and, after two years of downtime, it is welcome even if it’s challenging, he says.
“It’s constant phone calls. I mean, there’s just a real need for anyone who’s a pilot or a flight attendant,” the aviation veteran said. The Globe and Mail agreed not to name him, or his employer, in order to allow him to speak freely and avoid any potential repercussions because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
“I’m taking enough of it that it’s good. But I’m not going overboard with it because I was getting tired too,” the pilot said of the non-scheduled hours. “The last thing you want to do is fly tired. It’s not a career that allows for fatigue. … This summer I think that’s the biggest thing is that all the air crews have to be really careful about how much they fly.”
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At Sunwing Airlines, a carrier specializing in holiday travel, the crew shortage was so acute in July that it caused delays as long as a day, according to one pilot who spoke to The Globe on condition of anonymity. Things got so bad the airline had to hire an external charter operator just to pick up the slack and carry its passengers, the pilot said. He described it as “a complete operational meltdown.”
“Crew schedulers, they just want to put out the fire that’s in front of them,” the pilot said. “And if it makes another fire two days down the road, that will be dealt with then.”
Sunwing did not respond when asked for comment. The Globe is not naming the pilot because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Perhaps the biggest reason why airlines are finding themselves short of pilots is that after being furloughed during the pandemic, most of them had to reboot their qualifications in recent months after the industry restart this spring. That training happens in both the simulator and in-flight with another pilot, and the process can take several weeks.
Air Transat, for example, let go of most of its pilots as its operations came to a halt during the first waves of COVID-19 and it went into emergency cash-preservation mode. Some of them took other jobs to make ends meet. Others left the country to work for other airlines.
As soon as ticket sales started picking up again, airlines started calling back staff. There were a couple of false starts, notably last fall when the COVID Omicron variant hit. But when demand returned in full force earlier this year, airlines rushed to take advantage of it, adding as many flights as they dared given their capabilities.
Air travel, however, is not something that can be rebooted from a near-standstill overnight, says Captain Tim Perry, a WestJet Airlines pilot and president of the Canadian arm of the Air Line Pilots Association. Mr. Perry and other union leaders had urged the federal government to create a national recovery plan during the pandemic to carry airlines and airports through the crisis and ensure they were ready to return to the skies as soon as pandemic restrictions were lifted.
The plan didn’t materialize. Other national governments hatched industrywide plans and provided billions in financial aid for the sector, but Canada took a piecemeal approach negotiated largely one-on-one with each airline. And while the United States and other countries told carriers to keep their most critical staff on the payroll, including pilots, in preparation for a recovery, Canada did not.
Pilots were “basically abandoned,” said Mehran Ebrahimi, an aerospace specialist at the Université du Québec à Montréal. There was no help for them to maintain their qualifications every six months as they’re required to do, at an estimated cost of $10,000 a person, Mr. Ebrahimi said. So, many left the industry altogether.
The academic blames the Canadian government for a lack of leadership, adding Ottawa consistently underestimates the strategic value of the industry and its role in the economy. “Whether it be on passports, on airports, on airlines, on pilots, we’ve always acted as if the pandemic would be eternal,” he said. “And we’re seeing the results of that approach now.”
When airlines started to ramp up their crew training to meet renewed demand, that process happened far too late, Mr. Perry said. “We’re still feeling the effects of that.”
Airline training departments have maxed out their capacity in recent weeks, he said. The result: not enough scheduled pilots on the roster, not enough reserve pilots on standby, and crew scheduling focused on “plugging holes at the last minute,” Mr. Perry said.
Montreal-based CAE Inc., one of the world’s biggest civil aviation instruction companies, said there is a “high number of pilots” back in its simulators and training centres these days. “As the industry continues to recover, we expect more demand,” a company spokeswoman said.
The labour situation is improving as time goes on, Mr. Perry said. At the moment, pilot supply is not a major contributing factor toward many of the problems at Canada’s major airports, he said.
Air Canada said in July it is flying with almost as many pilots as it had in 2019, but operating just 80 per cent of its 2019 schedule. The airline said it has also doubled the number of pilots on reserve at any given time for wide-body planes, while increasing by 75 per cent the reserve pilots for narrow-body aircraft.
“The operating environment globally is under pressure” from well-documented issues such as security and customs lines, and limitations on the number of flights imposed by air traffic control, Air Canada said in an e-mail response to questions. “The importance and duration of disruptions on the network was such that crew shortages could not always be adequately mitigated as planned.”
Transat spokeswoman Andréan Gagné said the airline remains “in control of the situation” despite the difficulties. WestJet spokeswoman Denise Kenny said while the carrier is not immune to the challenges currently facing the industry, it has worked to balance flight offerings with sufficient staffing levels. All WestJet flight personnel have been recalled, she said.
New federal flight and duty time regulations for pilots that came into effect in December, 2020, have also delivered a curveball for airline scheduling departments. In short, the rules now limit flight crew work to a maximum of 112 hours over 28 consecutive days, 300 hours over 90 days and 1,000 hours over 365 days. The maximum flight duty period has also been reduced slightly and now takes into account the time of day work starts.
Mr. Ebrahimi estimates there is currently a shortage of 1,500 pilots in Canada, a situation with origins stretching back years to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of that atrocity, demand for pilots diminished internationally and fewer people chose it as a career. That was followed by a period of strong growth, fuelled by the arrival of low-cost carriers and the rise of aviation in China.
Staffing is still not in balance today, Mr. Ebrahimi said. He said the government should consider financing the training of pilots – something schools such as the Cégep de Chicoutimi have called for – to remedy the situation.
Airlines are hunting to find pilots wherever they can, often with knock-on effects on smaller carriers.
Yani Gagnon, the owner of Pascan Aviation, a Quebec regional airline whose biggest plane, the Saab 340B, seats 33 passengers, told Radio-Canada in April his company was forced to cancel some of its flights and reshuffle its schedule this summer because nearly a third of its 60 pilots had been poached by major carriers since the start of the year.
“It’s a very serious problem. Small carriers like Pascan Aviation are being targeted by the big ones – whether that be Air Canada, Transat, WestJet, Sunwing. They’re drawing on our pool of pilots,” Mr. Gagnon told the public broadcaster. “No pilots, no airplanes” is the bottom line, he said.
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