The number of commercial pilot licences issued in Canada has declined by more than 80 per cent since 2019, even as aviation experts warn of an ever-growing labour shortage that threatens to disrupt Canada’s airline industry.
Transport Canada numbers show that the number of commercial pilot licences awarded each year was relatively consistent for much of the past decade, averaging 1,116 licences annually between the years 2012 and 2019.
With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, however, those numbers fell off a cliff _ to 474 licences that year and then declining even further to 293 in 2021 and 238 in 2022.
A commercial pilots’ licence is needed to legally work as a pilot in Canada, and getting one requires a combination of ground school study as well as a minimum of 200 hours of flight training.
Further steps are required to become an airline pilot, as holders of commercial pilots’ licences must still undergo additional training and flying time before they can receive their Airline Transport Pilot Licence.
Part of the collapse in certifications during the pandemic is likely due to physical distancing and other public health-related challenges experienced by flight schools themselves. A survey conducted by the Flight School Association of North America in May of 2020 found that approximately 50 per cent of flight schools were forced to close temporarily in the early days of the pandemic, resulting in delays and disruptions to pilot educations.
However, experts say the numbers also reflect a broader unease with the state of the aviation industry and the stability of piloting as a career choice.
During the worst days of the pandemic, thousands of pilots were laid off, furloughed or took early retirement. Though the industry is recovering, it could take some time before young people have the confidence to rush back into flight schools, said Tim Perry, president of the Canadian division of the Air Line Pilots Association, the union that represents pilots at a number of Canadian airlines including WestJet and Transat.
“I mean, I’ve got 15,000 hours and 20 years of experience, and I was worried about the future – my future in this profession,” Perry said, reflecting on the collapse in air travel demand in 2020.
There is precedent when it comes to demand for pilot training collapsing in the wake of a major industry upset. A report from international consulting firm Oliver Wyman looked at past aviation industry crises such as 9/11 and the 2008 global financial crisis, and found that new pilot certifications in North America fell 30 to 40 per cent during the five years after the initial shock.
Perry said he thinks enrolment in flight schools will eventually rebound to reflect the airline industry’s post-COVID recovery.
However, even before the pandemic, a pilot shortage was brewing in Canada due to a variety of factors including an aging workforce and the rapid proliferation of new discount airlines that are putting pressure on the labour supply.
A 2018 report by the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace said that a third of flight operators in the country at that time cited pilots as their biggest skills shortage. The report said the need for experienced pilots was beginning to outpace the available national supply, and projected the industry would need an additional 7,300 pilots.
That means Canada needs to train even more pilots, and even a return to the pre-COVID status quo won’t be enough. Experts say one problem with that is the skyrocketing cost of training. It costs upwards of $100,000 to become a commercial pilot in 2023, more than double what it cost 20 years ago. And while an experienced captain at a mainline carrier can expect to earn well over six figures, most young pilots have to spend a decade gaining experience on remote and northern routes or at poorer-paying budget airlines before they can aspire to that level.
“The challenge today is that starting wages are so low,” said Robert Kokonis, president and managing director at Toronto-based consultancy AirTrav Inc.
“Traditionally, there’s a lot of families that would help fund their child’s commercial pilot licence. And lot of families I think have stopped doing that just because of the stress of the pandemic, higher interest and higher inflation, and uncertainty about whether the kids will get a payoff from this route.”
Last week, vacation airline Sunwing blamed its spate of holiday season flight disruptions and cancellations in part on a pilot shortage, telling the federal transport committee that the government’s decision to deny the airline’s recent application to hire 63 temporary foreign workers (TFWs) for pilot roles impacted its ability to deliver service.
In an email, Transport Canada spokeswoman Sau Sau Li said the regulator recognizes the pandemic resulted in a “significant impact” on human resources in the aviation industry. She said while there’s no risk to public safety as federal licensing requirements for pilots remain unchanged, labour shortages may impose “economic hardship” to air operators.
Transport Canada is doing all it can to help find solutions to the problem, Li added, saying the federal government is working to develop a national supply chain strategy, with further details expected in the next budget. Labour shortages within the transportation industry are a key focus of the upcoming strategy, she said.
Transport Canada is also seeking to expand existing pilot training programs and to modernize regulations to better address barriers to skills development and training, Li said.
Perry said there are a lot of things government and airlines could do to stabilize the pilot supply in this country, from subsidizing training to make it more affordable to ensuring that the number of training seats available across the country is in line with industry demand.
Kokonis agreed, adding he thinks the entire North American pilot training system “needs a re-think.”
“We need to pay people more, and we need to change from a self-sponsored system where people pay for their own training and then wait for an airline to hire them, to one where the airlines sponsor people and help get them into flight schools,” he said.
“Because the pilot shortage in this country is real, and it threatens to be a real drag on the Canadian economy.”