* Small airlines and bush pilots forced to cut back northern flights in wake of Canadian pilot shortage
By KIERAN LEAVITT
EDMONTON—As Canada faces a serious pilot shortage, northern airlines are losing out to national companies in the competition for staff, forcing some to cut back service.
“In the old days, used to be people would get their licence and go up north somewhere to fly for a few years, get their hours up, and go to a regional airline and then a major airline after that,” said bush pilot Dan Wettlaufer.
“But that is not the case anymore because with the major airlines you can go right away.”
According to a report put out earlier this year by the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace, pilots and maintenance engineers are in high demand. The industry will need 7,300 additional pilots by 2025, and less than 1,200 new pilot licences are issued every year.
Since 2001, Wettlaufer has been the owner and operator of Reliance Airways out of Fort Smith, N.W.T., a town right on the border of northeastern Alberta with a population of just over 2,500. Wettlaufer bought the airline to add to his tourism business and offered chartered flights during the summer throughout the Northwest Territories, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Hunters, people on eco tours and business people all use his charter service to get to remote areas of the country. But as the years have passed, the pilot shortage has hit his company hard and he had to remodel his business to compensate.
“Instead of owning and operating the planes year-round, and having enough pilots for it, a lot of our work is seasonal, so I just do a charter arrangement with another charter airline and utilize their pilots and aircraft just for the peak of our busy season,” he said.
He said that big airlines like Air Canada and WestJet are facing the same shortage and scoop up talent right away to get them experience flying big jets.
Wettlaufer is a lifelong bush pilot with the skills necessary to do the job, but now that few young pilots come up to cut their teeth flying in the bush, it’s hard to find pilots with the necessary experience for his company.
Joel Fournier, UNIFOR director of transportation, says airline companies go so far as to request that flight schools send their graduates straight to them upon graduation.
“Those operators up in the north, northwest, typically they’re kind of like training grounds for Air Canada or WestJet,” Fournier said. “But now, they’re hiring kids right out of cadet school or training school, which is unheard of.”
UNIFOR, a trade union representing close to 1,000 airline pilots across Canada as well as aviation mechanics and flight attendants, has had to deal with the repercussions.
It’s not ideal to put a new graduate at the helm of one of the big jets right away, said Fournier, but “they’re somewhat desperate.” The older generation of pilots is retiring, and there aren’t enough newcomers to fill those shoes. Many pilots who are talented and properly trained get offered jobs in other parts of the world where the shortage is also being felt.
Fournier says smaller airlines have asked him how to retain pilots, and he has worked to bargain for various bonuses in contracts to try to compete with the higher bidders.
Another issue is pilots continuing to fly past the age of 65, he said.
“Most pilots have to retire at 65,” he said, referring to other countries. “Here in Canada, the charter protects them from doing that, they can keep flying.”
While “it’s not the best situation,” said Fournier, he doesn’t blame the pilots. Many of them have worked for companies that have gone bankrupt and may not have had pensions. It’s a complex situation, he said.
However, Wettlaufer said he doesn’t think the end is coming for bush flying, even if young pilots taking contracts with big airlines poses a challenge to companies like his. The north was opened up by bush pilots, and many locations are still only accessible by bush flights.
“Bush flying will still have its place,” he said. “(It) might be more limited in the future, but it’s always a symbolic part of Canada — the Canadian bush plane on the water on floats, and every time that float plane takes off on the lake everybody gathers to watch it lift off the water. It’s a very mesmerizing, magical event.”