Alberta flying schools trying to remain sustainable amid pilot shortage

·4 min read
Faced with mounting costs and turbocharged demand for pilots, flying schools in Edmonton have to find ways to remain viable. (Dennis Kovtun/CBC - image credit)
Faced with mounting costs and turbocharged demand for pilots, flying schools in Edmonton have to find ways to remain viable. (Dennis Kovtun/CBC - image credit)

Flight schools in Alberta are struggling to continue operating, even though there is a very high demand for trained commercial pilots in Canada, industry experts say.

Those same experts point to financial inaccessibility, few incentives for new pilots to teach before going to work for larger airlines, and the pandemic as playing a role in jeopardizing the future of schools.

"At the airline level, there were mass layoffs that led to some pilots taking early retirements, many pilots leaving the industry and, in some cases, pilots leaving the country to parts of the world where aviation was perhaps better supported than in Canada," said Tim Perry, the president of Airline Pilots Association Canada.

Pilot shortage

White-hot competition between air carriers for pilots and insufficient supply of trainee pilots pushed some flying schools close to being unsustainable.

The schools that are located in more off the beaten path locations could be the first to go, according to Wayne Gouveia, the senior vice-president at the Air Transport Association of Canada.

"Because they don't have the volume [of students] to support the infrastructure required," he said. "The mom-and-pop flying schools, you'll see them start to fade away."

The pandemic created conditions that seriously unbalanced the already precarious system.

Shortage of qualified commercial pilots is a longstanding problem that has been exacerbated during COVID-19.

"When the demand returned to the industry, that led to an acute draw on the pilot resources at the lower levels of the industry, the entry levels of the industry," Perry said.

Flying schools are adapting to the need to produce employable graduates fast and maintain their own feasibility.

Cooking Lake Aviation, for instance, has partnered up with Solomon College to offer a training program, knowing that new pilots who graduate with a degree are more likely to succeed in the industry.

"We certainly recognize that most airlines do look fondly to having some sort of post-secondary training," Lawrence Lau, the general manager of Cooking Lake Aviation, said.

"We believe that we can mesh that together, create a unified, structured program that will give them benefits of both in the shortest period of time so that we can address this pilot shortage."

High costs 

The financial inaccessibility of flight training further reduces the pool of potential pilots to draw from. The high cost of fuel and spare parts get passed down to the student, said Lau.

Student aid to those taking up training as commercial pilots is also limited.

On average, it costs between $70,000 and $80,000 to train as a pilot, and Student Aid Alberta provides student funding for pilot training up to about $45,000, Lau said. Students — and their families — have to fork out the rest.

Scott Neufeld/CBC
Scott Neufeld/CBC

This high cost plus the shortage of instructors are an impediment to diversity in the flying profession, said Sophia Wells, the chief flight instructor at the Edmonton Flying Club.

"You're not going to get anybody from less than middle class if you don't open doors to make it possible," Wells said.

Lau echoed Wells' assessment.

"I can definitely see where families with lower income, or new immigrants who are definitely going to be more cash-strapped, having more difficulties getting into the profession, especially when we're so desperately short across the industry, especially women as well," Lau said.

There are fewer incentives for newly graduated pilots to become flight instructors for a period of time before going to work for larger airlines, said John Green, the general manager and vice-president at the Calgary-based North Cariboo Air.

"It's certainly a large concern for us that if there's very few pilots going into instructing, that it's going to slow down the ability to produce pilots, which could ultimately mean that we are unable to get pilots even at the entry level," he said.

Some specialized air services could be affected, such as air ambulances and companies that operate in the North.

"We have a middle level of industry that if we're not careful, we're going to starve," Wells said.

Air ambulance, aerial pipeline services, charters and cargo flights to smaller-sized and northern communities are significant components of this middle industry in the aviation sector.

Air ambulance in particular is a very important industry in Alberta, said Wells.

"That's a huge aspect to Canadian flying," Wells said.

"We do have a lot more air ambulances than almost any other country in the world, which is because of how to access places in our country."

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