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Hiring and retaining pilots is a perennial challenge for operators of all categories.
It’s a job market arguably like no other. Newcomers, often saddled with huge flight training debt, are nevertheless almost willing to pay for the privilege of stick time. At the other end, veteran commercial pilots with thousands of flight time hours fight to stay at the controls after they’re supposed to have retired.
As the increasing demand for air travel puts pressure on operators of all sizes, the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) organized a symposium on pilot recruitment at its recent annual spring meeting in Ottawa.
Mike Doiron, president of his eponymous consultancy, summarized a Canadian Council for Aviation & Aerospace study showing that a potential pilot shortage was now “very real.”
He said several trends indicate possible “downstream” issues that need to be collectively addressed by industry now.
The former ATAC chairman cited rolling 20-year global forecasts by Airbus and Boeing, which indicate that more than 500,000 new pilots will be needed. That falls in line with Federal Aviation Administration projections for the United States.
Worldwide, the annual average growth in the pilot population was expected to be in the range of four to 4.5 per cent, but Doiron noted that the International Air Transport Association last October projected overall industry growth at about 3.7 per cent if the market stabilizes. That’s a forecast he said underscores the need for more pilots.
That could drop to around 2.7 per cent if countries become more protectionist about air services but “really get out of hand real quick” in the other direction if air services are liberalized. “We could see, literally, a tripling of those numbers,” which would step up pressures on the job market.
Doiron noted that the Canadian air transportation sector is forecast to grow by an annual average of two per cent through to at least 2025.
“Unless there’s some dramatic change within our borders, that number is probably going to be the starting point.”
The outlook includes a need for 7,300 pilots, a situation he said would put Canadian operators at “a distinct disadvantage” without major systemic change. “If we look at the commercial pilot licences which have been issued since 1991 . . . in the last five years or so, there’s a slight increase. . . . But if you spread it out over the last 15 years, it’s effectively a flat line” of about 680 annually.
Moreover, while the domestic to foreign ratio of Canadian-issued licences had been 81:19 in the early 1990s, it had shifted to 55:45 last year. He warned that foreign students usually don’t stay in Canada to work, meaning that output of Canadian pilots has stagnated.
It was an “incredibly scary” scenario in which the demand for new hires for expansion and replacement could mean a shortfall of 6,000 by 2036.
Doiron said part of the solution could be getting to prospective pilots and other aviation professionals as early as middle school.
“Once someone hits Grade 12 or is graduating from high school, if they haven’t decided on an aviation career, there’s a distinct possibility it’s probably too late,” he said.
Flight training costs that typically range from $60,000 to $90,000 for a job which might pay only $20,000 to start were another major challenge which too often scares prospective pilots away.
“We need to get some serious discussion on how . . . we make it easier for people to come in the door. . . . There’s a lot more people who would be really interested in aviation if they could afford it.”
He said that while this should be an industry-driven initiative, governments had to be involved. Various provinces offer support to flight schools, but their role is increasingly hampered by the fact that the instructor pool is shrinking, particularly at senior levels, as commercial operators hire them away.