Jump to content

Northern airlines feeling the strain


Recommended Posts

Northern airlines feeling the strain as Canada faces shortage of 6,000 pilots

Some airlines have had to cancel flights as they struggle to keep pilots

By Jimmy Thomson, CBC NewsPosted: Jun 30, 2017 5:30 AM CT Last Updated: Jun 30, 2017 5:30 AM CT

Jim Heidema says he has had increasing difficulty holding on to pilots, who are being recruited early than ever by bigger airlines. (Jim Heidema (Submitted))

Jimmy Thomson

A Canada-wide pilot shortage is hitting the North especially hard, with small regional airlines having trouble keeping pilots on staff as their national counterparts scoop them up sooner than ever before.

"People don't stick around as long anymore," says Mikey McBryan, general manager of Buffalo Airways.

"Normally people would stay three years; now they're maybe a year and a half before they've moved on to Air Canada Jazz."

Fort Smith-based Northwestern Air Lease is also feeling the pressure, having had to cancel flights due to a lack of pilots as they leave for southern airlines.

"It's a love/hate relationship," says Jim Heidema, Chief Operating Officer for Northwestern. "It's nice that they hold our pilots in high regard, but the bad news is they take them from us too soon."

The Air Transport Association of Canada estimates the industry will face a shortage of 6,000 pilots over the next 20 years, due to low wages for new pilots and the high cost of training.

Baby boomer pilots are also retiring from senior positions, while the industry is quickly expanding: according to Transport Canada, between 2010 and 2016, airlines added over 2,200 new aircraft.

Nearly 4,000 new pilots got their licenses during that time, but according to Victoria, B.C. flight school manager Gerry Mants, that wasn't enough to meet demand.
"The industry is drawing pilots up and into the next step in their career much quicker than it's ever been before," says Mants.

"It makes it more difficult for the middle carriers to find people, because the big guys are taking them in a hurry."NWAL's Heidema says the bigger airlines are sucking up entire classes of flight school graduates to fill their rosters, and new airlines like NewLeaf and Jetlines are adding to the competition.

Good news for new pilots

The North has a special relationship to its pilots and airlines. Unlike most of the country, planes are a literal lifeline for many communities in the territories — relied on heavily for supply runs and medevacs.

Northern pilots have maintained their romantic image, braving the wilderness to carry supplies and people to and from remote places; the Pilots' Monument is one of Yellowknife's best-known landmarks.

But becoming a pilot in the North can take years of menial labour, as qualified pilots often spend years as so-called "rampies," loading and unloading cargo and acting as flight attendants while they wait for their promotion to the controls. 

For those new recruits, the shortage is not necessarily a bad thing. They're moving through the ranks and getting coveted flight training hours much sooner than expected. One new pilot at an N.W.T.-based airline, who asked not to be named, said she has already advanced to near the front of the line for flight time, nearly a year ahead of schedule.

Heidema says he's "aggressively" hiring new people by touting the benefits of working in the North.

"One of the things we do is sell what we've got up here," he says. "Our pilots are home every night; the pilots get paid very well."

He adds that for some, the allure of the job isn't the fact pace of career progression, however, but rather the slow pace of life.

"There are other people that just love the lifestyle, the pace of the North."

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...