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More than 500 people attended the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) annual conference in Montreal from Nov. 6 to 8, 2017, but president John McKenna said numbers would have been even higher were it not for the current pilot shortage.

“We have members who are not here because of that–they have to stay home and fly,” McKenna told Skies at the show.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to encourage young people to train to become pilots, especially with a lack of flight instructors which causes flight schools to operate below capacity.

ATAC wants to educate Canadian youth about the rewards of an aviation career. One of the groups it will target is the Royal Canadian Air Cadets.

He said that as recently as a year ago, many of Canada’s larger carriers did not recognize there was a pilot shortage, but in the last few months it’s become increasingly evident that the industry has a problem.

“We have many companies who are parking planes. Some have lost 18 of their 36 experienced pilots in the last six months. How do you compensate for that? It’s incredibly difficult. In 2017, we started to really address this as an issue.”

At its annual spring meeting in May, ATAC made a discussion on pilot recruitment a priority. At that event, speaker Mike Doiron cited several studies showing a Canadian pilot shortage is now “very real.”

A working group was convened, meeting twice over the summer to discuss the topic and chart a path forward for the association. Members of that group outlined their progress to a room full of industry representatives on Nov. 8 in Montreal.

Panel member Bob Connors, who is general manager at Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre, said ATAC is taking the lead on the issue, with input from the Canadian Council for Aviation & Aerospace (CCAA), the College of Professional Pilots of Canada, and operators such as Sunwing, WestJet, Air Georgian, Jazz and Porter Airlines, among many others.

The group conducted a survey of ATAC’s flight school and carrier members to quantify flight training capacity in Canada. Of the 20 flight training units that have responded to date, all said they are not training at full capacity, mainly due to a lack of flight instructors.

Lynne McMullen, director of business development at the Seneca College School of Aviation, told the audience that although many schools surveyed are able to train Class IV instructors, roughly 50 per cent of them still require five or more instructors to reach capacity.

“There is a need to encourage people to consider flight instruction as a viable career option,” she said, adding that good instructors could move on to become training pilots with larger carriers.

To address the need for funding a comprehensive industry response to the pilot shortage, Robert Donald, CCAA executive director, said a pilot component was added to a proposal that his agency submitted to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the government agency responsible for employment, skills training and the federal labour market.

The ATAC working group further studied the availability of information and financial assistance for student pilots across Canada, with Air Georgian’s Gabriella Marsala outlining the need to create a “one-stop shop” where students, parents, educators and other interested parties can find out how pilots are training and where funding can be found.

“We need to come together as a community to create this one-stop shop,” she said. “How can we create it? And one of the biggest questions is, ‘Who is going to do it?’ ”
ATAC plans to inform young people about careers in aviation with increased brand awareness through its FlyCanada web page. Mike Reyno Photo
Several operators, including Sunwing Airlines, now offer programs that fast track young pilots from the classroom to the cockpit. Mike Reyno Photo

Among the other issues discussed at the session was what McKenna referred to as the “elephant in the room”–the fact that after spending close to $100,000 on training, new pilots can expect to start off on the low end of the pay scale.

“Clearly, wages are a problem,” he said. “Labour is the biggest cost. The margins are low in this business. When you have a low margin, an increase in the price of gas, for example, can be a big problem.”

However, it was also acknowledged that in the current employment climate, pilots will climb the career ladder quickly, with compensation increasing accordingly.

Moving forward, Bob Connors said the group aims to inform young people about aviation careers, will work to increase brand awareness through ATAC’s FlyCanada web page, and hopes to create an online site under the ATAC banner that will become a one-stop resource shop for prospective pilots.

Outreach targets include youth (especially the Air Cadets), educators, parents, government, media and the general public, and related institutions and organizations.

“Leverage is the underlying theme here,” said Connors, who invited all industry members to collaborate for the cause.
Pressing concerns

While the pilot shortage is a key concern for ATAC, association president John McKenna said the other big issue at the moment is flight crew fatigue and the new set of “prescriptive” flight and duty time regulations that is expected to see publication in Canada Gazette II by early spring.

Along with other aviation associations, ATAC has voiced strong opposition to the new regulations.

“No one is arguing fatigue needs to be managed,” said McKenna. “We’re not asking him [Transport Minister Marc Garneau] not to do this. We’re asking him to take a breather; take an extra year and do it right.”

He said that after the regulations are enacted, the industry will require an average of 25 per cent more pilots to provide the same level of service.

“Pilots don’t seem to realize they’ll work fewer hours, but more days,” said McKenna. “And it will threaten the livelihood of some companies. If suddenly your labour costs increase by [an average of] 25 per cent, some of the operators won’t be able to operate.

“Some routes that are not profitable will be dropped. If they have to double crew them, or have the crew stay overnight, some of these routes may be jeopardized. The cost of any airline ticket in Canada will go up. Finally, it’s going to put more pressure on the pilot shortage.”
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ATAC is also focusing on a number of other issues, including the level of service being provided by Transport Canada. “We’ve had some marginal improvements over the past year, but in other areas there has been no change. It is still taking months for manual approvals or to simply add a new aircraft to an operating certificate.”

The uncertain spectre of airport privatization is also on the association radar. “Selling off airports for a one-time cash grab would be a monumental mistake,” said McKenna. “This has not proved to be a good experience anywhere in the world. It would be a detriment to our industry.”

During the past year, ATAC has also provided feedback on proposed restructuring options for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), which is responsible for screening passengers and baggage at the country’s airports.

There will be no shortage of issues demanding the attention of incoming ATAC chair, Steve Hankirk, who is president of Canadian North. But on the bright side, McKenna said the pressing situations facing the industry today are translating into an increase in association membership.

“In the last year, we’ve had several operators come to the table–expecting something in return, of course,” he said. “They’re here because they get something out of it. Right now, they need our help on these things. People want someone to speak out on their behalf.”

It was foggy and unseasonably warm on Feb. 23 as a Sunwing Boeing 737-800 landed at the Region of Waterloo International Airport and taxied up to the terminal.

From left to right: Newly-minted Sunwing First Officers Cameron Fuchs, Chelsea Anne Edwards, Siobhan O’Hanlon and Spencer Leckie, on the ramp at the Regional of Waterloo International Airport. Photo: Mike Reyno.

Inside the building, a large group of people was eagerly anticipating the plane’s arrival. On hand were representatives from the University of Waterloo (UW), Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC), airport staff and members of the media–all there to celebrate four brand new Sunwing first officers who are among the first direct-entry cadets the leisure airline has ever hired.

As First Officer Chelsea Anne Edwards descended the airstairs to the wet tarmac, she was joined by three of her fellow graduates from the four-year aviation program offered by the UW and WWFC. Founded in 2007, the program–which leads to an Honours Bachelor of Environmental Studies in Geography and Aviation or to an Honours Bachelor of Science in Science and Aviation–has produced six graduating classes whose members are now flying around the world.

It’s safe to say, however, that the class of 2016 represents a major milestone for the program. It’s the first time its graduates have been offered direct-entry co-pilot positions with Sunwing Airlines. Edwards–together with Cameron Fuchs, Spencer Leckie and Siobhan O’Hanlon, all aged 23–found themselves going from graduation to the right seat of a 737 in just one year.

Two of the new first officers, Edwards and Fuchs, told Skies that the transition from WWFC aircraft to the right seat of a Boeing 737 was akin to drinking from the proverbial fire hose.

“It was busy, but we were well prepared from the Flight Centre and the training at Sunwing is first class. It all went well, but there were certainly challenges,” said Fuchs.

Edwards agreed. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “Still, when I get in the plane, I just can’t believe it. I never thought this would happen, never! I thought I’d be working in Yellowknife. It’s unreal. I love working here.”

To quote Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changing. No longer do aviation program grads face years of flight instructing or toiling in the Canadian bush before an airline will even consider them for a first officer position. In fact, Sunwing took on the four UW/WWFC graduates–plus two more from Seneca College–with most of them in the neighbourhood of 250 hours total flight time.

At the event on Feb. 23, the airline confirmed the program’s success and announced its plans to take on a new crop of cadets from both post-secondary programs beginning in July 2017.

“Attracting high calibre graduates to join our flight team is essential to our growth and success as an airline,” said Capt John Hudson, Sunwing’s manager of standards. “We were extremely pleased with the performance of the cadets that graduated from the program this summer, and hired four of them as first officers upon completion of their studies. We expect to hire similar numbers of graduates next year.”

Sunwing’s Captain John Hudson and First Officer Chelsea Anne Edwards flew one of the airline’s Boeing 737-800s into Waterloo Airport on Feb. 23. Edwards is one of six direct-entry cadets hired by Sunwing last year. The airline has confirmed that it plans to hire more cadets in 2017. Photo: Brian Finnerty.

Partnerships between academia and industry are becoming increasingly common in the Canadian flight training landscape.

An early model dates back to 2007, when Jazz Aviation debuted its Jazz Award program in collaboration with select aviation colleges and universities. Today, it has been rebranded as the Jazz Aviation Pathways Program (Jazz APP) and expanded to include eight schools and three industry partners from across the country.

Meanwhile, the Jazz Cadet program continues with Seneca College. It now includes a new instructor pathway program, which will give past Seneca grads–who subsequently took instructing jobs with the college–the chance to land a pilot position with the airline.

Air Georgian has also offered a mentorship program to Seneca students since 2008. “Seneca will forward us resumes of graduates that stood out, who they strongly recommend,” said Dan Bockner, VP of operations and security at Air Georgian. “We want to take the highest performers from the program and bring them onto the Beech 1900 as first officers with as little as 250 hours of flying time.”

He said Air Georgian has hired a total of about 25 Seneca grads since the beginning of the mentorship program.

“When they come in, they get the same training anyone else does. There are some limitations. The low-time pilots do get 50 per cent more line indoc–60 hours versus 40 hours for a normal hire,” said Bockner. “We’re so comfortable with it that we’re really good at doing it now, and doing it safely and mitigating any risks. Since they perform so well, there really aren’t a lot of risks.”

Lynne McMullen, director of business development at Seneca’s School of Aviation, told Skies that these partnerships are a sign of things to come.

“Ultimately, what will happen is greater collaboration through the industry,” she said. “Schools are moving to partner with industry to move students along on a defined career path and they will choose the program with the pathway option that’s right for them, depending on their ultimate goal.”