Global pilot shortage a looming crisis in Canada
Pilots complain 'magic' of flying has faded with no-frills airlines, low salaries
Last Updated: Wednesday, November 21, 2007 | 10:31 AM ET
While airlines are filling their planes with passengers, the struggle to keep their pilots in the cockpits is a deepening crisis in the global air travel business, aviation experts are saying.
shortage of commercial pilots flying the skies above Canada and the world over is so serious that the International Civil Aviation Organization predicts at least 15,000 new pilots will be needed every year in the next two decades. Canada and the U.S. will need at least 60,000 new pilots by 2020.
For Canadians, massive retirement, competition from the air force and foreign airlines, and low salaries are among the factors contributing to a general fading of the romance of the skies.
Flight classes at the Algonquin Flight Centre in North Bay, Ont., still have too many vacant seats, the school's owner, Stefan Corriveau, told CBC News.
Corriveau said that an airline in the U.S. last month had to cancel four per cent of its flights because no flight crews were available. He worries for the future of pilots at home.
"I think those problems will come to Canada," he said.
Although Corriveau said he knows he can handle more students to train for the major airlines, he said the flight business has lost its appeal to a younger generation discouraged by low starting salaries and sky-high training costs.
'Salaries are way too low'
"The salary issue is a very sensitive issue for a lot of pilots and in Canada right now, the opinion of many is that the salaries are way too low," he said.
To earn the minimum license required by commercial airlines at similar flight schools, students such as Bill Tompkins have to pay as much as $60,000, while starting salaries often barely crack $30,000.
"With the advent of low-fare airlines, really you've just become a glorified bus-driver," Tompkins said. "They've just cheapened it. For me, it's still there — there's a bit of magic, but the romance of flying is gone."
Travis Griffin graduates next year from the school, but he'll return to his native Ireland to work, where he can make a more comfortable living.
"It's 50,000 to 60,000 euros to start off, and then you get benefits on top of that, so it's better at home," Griffin said.
European and Asian airlines flush with cash are also coming to Canada and luring away home-grown pilots.
Air forces want to retain pilots
The military, meanwhile, is working hard to retain the young pilots it has trained in the air force. Before Jack Desmarais retired after decades of flying 747s for Air Canada, he began his career in the military. Many of his colleagues also learned their skills in the air force before later turning commercial.
But now, air forces around the world are giving better financial incentives to keep their pilots in uniform.
CBC workplace specialist Frank Koller said baby boom pilots are also retiring quickly, and that the airline industry has still not recovered pilots who left after the economic turmoil immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S.
He said some airlines, such as Air Canada Jazz, are trying to curb the pilot shortage by taking young pilots fresh out of flight school and mentoring them on the job in the cockpits. Although there are safety concerns, Koller noted that it's been done for years in Europe.
This article raises a number of key issues, some of which are addressed in my book.
The Pilot Shortage - I started my training in 1999. At that point, there was a strong economy and airlines were doing lots of hiring. When I graduated from college, things started slowing down and Sept 11th, 2001 caused a massive drop in demand for air travel.
Prior to this however, every flight school you talked to was predicting a pilot shortage. Things were going to be just like the good old days in the 1970s when Air Canada hired pilots right out of flying school. In fact, my uncle started with Air Canada at age 21 as a second officer on an L1011.
I was and still am sceptical that this will happen again. While I think hiring will be strong for the forseeable future, pilots will still ahve to find way to gain experience and hours. This brings us to the next issue:
Airline Cadets - Air Canada Jazz has a trial project this year. They took the top few graduates from a number of Aviation Colleges and put them through Ground School. If they passed all the required training, they will possibly qualify as junior first officers. This has sparked a bit of an uproar in the pilot community as a number of more experienced pilots who have been by-passed feel that these younger piots should have to 'pay their dues' and gain experience.
Cadet programs are used in Asian and European airlines. In a number of airlines, the First Officer of your Boeing or Airbus could be in her early 20s and only have a couple hundred hours. I think with the right amount of training this can avoid safety issues, but I am a proponent of gaining 'real world' experience. In the few years that I was flying professionally I learned a lot.
Low Salaries / Working Conditions - This is another difficult issue. Aviation is different today than it was a few decades ago. Passengers expect low airfares and with rising fuel costs, profit margins are getting thinner. If airlines raise salaries, they'll have to increase ticket prices which will likely lower passenger demand, however, if they don't raise salaries more and more people are going to choose other professions.
In my book I outline the general remuneration that pilots make at different levels of the industry. I think in general, many pilots sacrifice in the beginning making a low salary so that they will gain the experience to make a higher salary, infact, some newer pilots will even fly for free (Do NOT do this as I outline in the book).
Newer pilots should be aware of the general salary trends so that they have a good idea of what to expect in the industry. Jobs at airlines can be relatively well paying, but you're not going to be filthy rich.