Friday, February 29, 2008

Selling Seats

Yesterday, to celebrate their 12th birthday, WestJet had a pretty good seat sale on routes in Eastern Canada offering fares between Toronto and Ottawa or Montreal for as low as $12. Some other routes were only $39 each way. While they still added all the surchrages such as taxes, airport improvement fees, NavCanada fees and the security tax, the flights were still a great deal. Air Canada matched most of the fares. Combined, my girlfriend and I bought a total of 5 one way flights for roughly $420.

Three of these were flights that we knew we needed to make in the next few months so we would have eventually bought tickets. Two legs were a flight that I was probably going to make, but hadn't completely committed to yet. The sale solidified my decision. Although, for that particular trip I booked on WestJet before I knew that Air Canada had matched the prices. Air Canada had flights at more convenient times, so I would have picked their flight had I done some more research.

The excitment of getting a pretty good deal aside, this raises some really interesting issues about the economics of the airline industry. Aircraft are complex, expensive machines. They are operated by skilled crews who are paid a relatively comfortable salary. Yet, with a sale like this, the actual cost of the airfare from Toronto to Halifax is less than the cab ride home from the airport!

This was just a one day sale. Fares that low are not sustainable as the former airline Jetsgo showed. But this does raise some interesting questions. What is a good price for airfare? Most customers will argue that airfare should be lower, yet, airlines in Canada go bankrupt on a regular basis. In fact, there's an article in the Globe & Mail's Report On Business on Air Transat and how it's amazing that an airline has survived for 20 years in Canada!

This issue is too complex to examine in a short blog post. In fact, airline executives with MBA's haven't managed to get it right over the past few decades. But, on the surface at least, the public's desire for low airfares generally conflicts with pilots' desires for a high income.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Flying For Free

A recent Job Post by a Sky Diving Company on the AvCanada Message Boards has sparked quite a bit of online controversy. There have been a number of threads in response to this job post: Here , and Here , and Here , and Here.

The problem with this job ad is that the ad is not for a real job. The skydive company runs a skydive 'course' where it charges roughly $1000 to the dozen or so pilots who sign up. From there, the company will take only a few of the 'graduates' of this course and allow them to fly skydivers for the summer and not get paid for it.

There are a number of problems with this.

To begin with, I have talked to a couple different new pilots over the years who have signed up for this course under the promise that everyone who passes the course gets 'hired' on. However, unless things have changed, it sounds as if the reality of the situation is that very few of the pilots who complete the course actually get hired on. A couple of years ago, one friend of mine signed up for the course. The company knew in advance that he had only 200 hours, however, after the course had finished, they gave him an excuse that the couldn't 'hire' him because their minimum was 250 hours. Another pilot I talked to claims he was promised that everyone who takes the course gets hired, however, after he had paid for and attended the course, they said, thanks, but we have enough pilots and don't need your help - they were still more than happy to take his money for the course though.

At first blush this course and promise of flying can actually sound like a good deal for a new pilot who has just spent tens of thousands of dollars getting his or her licence.

The thinking goes - the promise of 200-300 hours over a summer for 'only' the cost of a $1000 course is a small price to pay compared to the cost of getting a licence. Besides, working for free or 'volunteering' to get these hours will give them experience and a leg up to get a real job.

While I completely understand the reasoning for this type of thinking, it is based on false logic. Although flight training is expensive, the primary purpose of the flight is so that you can learn to fly. At the Sky Dive company, the primary purpose of the flight is to fly skydivers and ultimately make money for the owner. This company is not a skydiving club or a not-for-profit organization (there are, for example, non profit gliding clubs where volunteering would be a slightly different endeavour). This company's purpose is to make money and they need pilots to fly the skydiving planes in order to make money, therefore, the pilot involved should be making money.

Hours in and of themselves are not a form of payment. While true that most entry level jobs are low paying and the primary purpose is to gain experience, you are a commercial pilot and providing your services so that the owner of the company can make money, you should therefore be paid. Skydiving companies are never going to be high paying jobs. In fact, there are a lot of places where pilots only get $1 of every jumper they fly whereas they get $2 for every parachute they roll up! While I think that this is still very low pay, at least it is pay.

As a new pilot, you may think that spending money on this type of course and getting this type of experience will help you in the long run. On an individual level it actually might help someone get ahead. However, there are a few things to think about before deciding to take a non-paying position. This operator, and others like it are known across the industry. This could potentially hinder you in a serach for a job later on. The second thing to consider is that it hurts the pilot profession as a whole. If no new pilots would take a course like this, the operator would be forced to actually pay the pilots that he employs.

Pilots will often take jobs where they don't get paid in order to get experience for jobs that do pay. But, the rub is that the operators that do pay their pilots have to compete with the companies that don't. This could ultimately lead to more unpaid positions.

DO NOT SIGN UP FOR THIS COURSE OR FLY FOR FREE (if it is for a for-profit company)

Monday, February 18, 2008

English Language Proficiency now Required for Pilots

I received an e-mail from a flight school in Ontario that I used to rent from reminding students that English Language proficiency is now required for all pilots.

As an aside, the title of the e-mail was "Aviation Engilsih Language Proficiency requirement for Licensing‏" - Not knocking the sender, as I know that I don't have perfect grammar or spelling, but I just thought that it's a funny place for a spelling error. But I digress.

English is the International Language of Aviation. While this is not without some controversy, having a universal language that everyone talks on the radio in is vital for aviation safety. I don't know the exact history of how and why English is the Universal Language of aviation but I assume that it has to do with the fact that both the US and the UK were the initial leaders in aircraft development and they were the victorious parties in WWII. Regardless, pilots flying Internationally are required to speak English to air traffic control. It would be extremely difficult if every pilot had to learn multiple languages for every different country they flew to. As it is, it can be difficult for non-English speakers to learn English proficiently to fly to English speaking countries. Although, I've found that in general, non-English speakers in general are much better at knowing English than English speakers are at knowing other languages.

Here's a recording from an exchange between an Air China pilot and a ground controller at New York's JFK airport.

This is not to suggest that the pilot is not intelligent because he doesn't know English (besides, his English is far better than my command of any of the Chinese languages), but it shows that there could be very real potential safety concerns if pilots and air traffic control cannot communicate.

While initially the interaction of English speaking air traffic control and non-English speaking pilots was reserved for international airlines which theoretically would be able to control the language proficiency of their pilots, flight training itself is becoming more international. Canadian flight schools specifically market themselves toward international students where flight training is either less accessibly or prohibitively expensive. While this can be great business for Canadian Schools, it could increase the possibility that communication barriers could jeopardise aviation safety.

To address this, ICAO has implemented language proficiency guidelines. Transport Canada in complying with these guidelines has created a new language proficiency requirement in obtaining a pilot licence.

Here is a description by a Transport Canada employee that was posted on AvCanada. The full thread can be found HERE

The Facts regarding the Aviation Language Proficiency Test

As of March 5th, 2008, all licensed pilots in Canada (excluding permits, glider, gyroplane and ornithopter) will be required to meet a minimum language proficiency. Although this will be an ICAO requirement, every jurisdiction (country) has had the freedom to decide how their pilots will meet it. So -- this means that Canada and the USA (for example) will have different ways of assessing this proficiency. How language proficiency will be recognized when converting licenses from one country to another has not yet (that I am aware of) been decided.

The Aviation Language Proficiency Test (hereafter called ALPT) is a 20 question oral examination that is administered either over the phone or in person without the "Test Taker" and "Examiner" having direct visual contact (divider or back-to-back). It is not a test of aviation knowledge, but a test of the candidate's ability to understand and speak english in an aviation context. It can be taken prior to having any flight experience, prior to solo, etc. -- it just must be completed before the license is issued.

It has been decided that Pilot Examiners that test PPL candidates will be offered the opportunity to become ALPT Examiners. They will be required to attend a workshop put on by Transport Canada, and provide an example of 3 examinations (in person or recorded) in order to be delegated. Transport Canada Inspectors will NOT be conducting the examinations, just the initial and recurrent training for the Examiners.

The test can be administered in English or French, depending on the delegation of the examiner and the requirement of the candidate.

Although the ICAO standards has 6 levels of language proficiency, in order to simplify matters, Canada only recognizes 3 of them:

"Expert" - ICAO Level 6
"Operational" - ICAO Level 4
"Below Operational" - Less than ICAO Level 4

In Canada, you must have a minimum assessment of "Operational" (ICAO level 4) in order to hold a Canadian license.

They are scored on each of these 20 questions, and evaluated the following way:

-not more than 6 questions assessed at level 4 and no question assessed below level 4, they are awarded "Expert" ICAO level 6, and never have to take the test again.

-not more than 6 questions assessed at below level 4, they are awarded "Operational" ICAO level 4, and have to take the test again in 5 years.

-if they get more than 6 questions below level 4, they cannot hold an aviation license in Canada.

Regarding re-tests:
Re-tests may be done after a mandatory minimum waiting time, as defined by CARS 400.03 the same as the written examinations.

Regarding all current pilots:
Most (all?) current Canadian license holders have been assessed using their pilot file -- providing there was enough information (what language did they do their written exam in? Flight test? Last medical? Written correspondence?). Licenses issued after mid-November will have a language proficiency statement on them (example "Language Proficiency - English"). Transport Canada should be re-issuing all of the older, outstanding licenses to meet this requirement until the new "Passport Style" licenses are issued sometime later this year.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion.

-TC Guy

Friday, February 15, 2008

Photos From The Book

A recent reader commented that while he found the book "very informative, pleasant, easy to read and very realistic" he was a little disappointed that the pictures weren't in colour.

I agree. The black and white pictures don't do some of them justice. But unfortunately printing pictures in colour would have been pretty cost prohibitive. Here are a few of the pictures from the book, specifically the ones that black and white just didn't do justice.

A 767 on approach - Photo by Adam Van Dusen

A Cessna C441 Conquest II in Rankin Inlet, NU - Photo by James Ball

A Pilatus PC-12 Flight Deck - Photo by Adam Van Dusen

A Canadian Forces CF-18 on the Ramp at YYZ - Photo by James Ball

A CMA Beech 1900 on the Ramp in YVR - Photo by Mike Stefanski

Sunset in a PC-12 - Photo by Adam Van Dusen

Monday, February 11, 2008

Wings Magazine

I'm pleased to announce that this month's issue of Wings Magazine features a blurb about "So, You Want to be a Pilot, Eh?"

The book is mentioned on page 12 in the "On the Web" section of the book. I'm quite flattered as Wings is Canada's National Aviation Magazine. It's a great source of information about the industry. On top of the magazine, the website is very informative to keep you up to date on what's going on in the industry. Right now, there's even a free trial to sign up for an online digital version of the magazine. Regardless, a good ol'paper subscription is worth the $34.00 a year.

Although, I did have to laugh a bit. This month's issue came with an insert for luxury cars. Although at the higher levels of the industry this would be valuable, on a flight student's (or in my case - law student's) salary (read - debt) it will be a number of years away!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Seneca College Aviation

In my book, So, You Want to be a Pilot, Eh? I outline the general pros and cons of doing your flight training through a traditional flight school as compared to an Aviation College or University program. What I don’t outline are the pros and cons of specific College and University Aviation Programs. The reason for this was two fold: first, there are a large number of different programs and outlining them in a book would take up a lot of space and second, the programs are often changing and the information in a book would be out of date before the book even hit the shelves. On this blog however, I will attempt to touch upon different attributes of some of the aviation programs at Canadian Colleges and Universities.

If you have a particular program that you would like information on, please send me an e-mail and I will attempt to find out information about that particular program. As well, I would very much appropriate any readers who have attended various College or University Aviation Programs to send me an e-mail and share your experiences about your particular college.

This entry will be about my Alma Mater – Seneca College.

Seneca College’s Aviation Program was the first Community College Aviation Program in Canada and the program has been around for almost 40 years. In 2003, after the Ontario Government permitted Colleges to grant degrees for certain programs, Seneca switched it’s 3 year Aviation and Flight Technology Diploma to a 4 year Bachelor’s of Applied Technology Degree. It is a subsidized program (so are Sault College and Confederation College), however, with the switch to a degree, the overall price has increased and although it is less expensive than most combined flight training and degree programs, it is more expensive than the other subsidized programs in Ontario.

Here are some things to consider:

Fleet: While it is debateable, in my opinion, Seneca has, by far, the best fleet of training aircraft in Canada. The fleet consists of 7 new Cessna 172s, at least one of which has a full screen Garmin moving map display, 5 F33A Beechcraft Bonanzas and 2 Beechcraft B58 Barons. There are also 4 sophisticated simulators - 1 each for the 172, Bonanza and Baron and a Level 5 Bombardier CRJ 200 Regional Jet Simulator. While I am not sure about the newer simulators, when I was there, students had unlimited free access to these simulators. Free access to these simulators not only allowed students to practice their IFR and emergency procedures as much as they wanted, 25 of these hours can be counted towards the ATPL.
Seneca's Fleet

The CRJ 200 Sim

Location: Seneca is the closest full college, subsidized program to Toronto. This can be a good thing and a bad thing for both student life and flight training.
Buttonville Airport - East of Hwy 404 and just North of Hwy 407

For Student Life, if a student is from the Toronto area, there is the potential to live at home and commute to school. This is what I did. While it made for not quite as fun a College experience, it definitely ended up being cheaper in the long run. However, for students from outside of Toronto or who don’t want to commute, living in or near Toronto can be quite expensive. As well, due to the location of Buttonville airport, it is necessary to have access to a car as public transit to the airport is almost non-existent.

For flight training, it can be very beneficial to get used to working in some of the busiest airspace in Canada. While it’s a lot to take in at first, getting comfortable dealing with lots of traffic, different radio frequencies and different types of air traffic can improve your multi-tasking skills. On the other hand, it can make for a more stressful initial learning experience. Sometimes dealing with lots of different traffic when you’re just starting out can be quite overwhelming. Training in areas with less traffic can allow you to focus on the basics without having to worry so much about busy airspace. Personally, I enjoyed flying in that area, but I know others who would have preferred flying in a less busy locale.

Program Academics: As mentioned, Seneca’s program is now a 4 year Applied Degree. It includes a Co-op requirement and students are also required to maintain a minimum C+ in each course in order to continue on. Unlike when I went through the program, there is no longer a ‘cut’ after the first year where a certain amount of students are required to withdraw if they were not in the top 37.

I am a strong proponent of having a degree. However, one thing to keep in mind with Seneca’s Degree is that because it is an Applied Degree, it may not be afforded the same respect as a traditional Bachelor’s Degree from a University. If someone decided that they wanted to continue on in their education and complete a Master’s Degree or a professional degree such as Teacher’s College or Law School, depending on the school they’re applying to, they may or may not be accepted. I’ve been hearing stories that while some Universities gladly accept an Applied Degree as equivalent to Degrees from a University, other Universities refuse to accept these degrees.

I have mixed views about the Co-op program. While getting experience in the industry is always beneficial, from what I’ve been hearing from current students, the program itself is not quite as well structured as one would hope and for the most part, students have to find the employment themselves. There have been a range of positions, many of which are simply working the ramp with local airlines. This can be good in the fact that you gain experience and connections, but in the context of flight program, it might be more beneficial to get the flying done first so you can get into the industry quicker.

However, having students work prior to graduating may help to decrease the assumption of the Seneca ‘attitude’ –more on that shortly.

Program Expenses and Time: Tuition expenses work out to roughly $10,000 a year. Tuition per semester is roughly $3500 and you also spend a summer semester flying. While $40,000 for a 4 year Degree is not cheap, compared to the regular cost of flight training or a degree program, this is a real bargain. However, when you compare this to the other two subsidized Ontario Colleges – Confederation and Sault College, their total costs are significantly lower due to the fact that they are still Diploma programs and the actual length of the program is shorter.

4 Years is can be a long time to do all your flight training. I felt that a 3 year program was still a little too long, adding on an extra year is another year that you could be flying and getting experience in the industry. There are many pilots who feel that the best thing to do is get your training done as quick as possible so you can be out in the industry getting experience. If someone rushed through their training in a year or two, then worked the ramp for 6 months to a year, they could still have 2000 hours in the same time it took to complete a 4 year degree.

I think having a degree, other education and a College experience are all very important things, but for someone who wants to get flying as quick as possible, Seneca is probably not the best choice.

Jobs: Overall, Seneca has a very good reputation in the industry in Canada. It is a well established, comprehensive program that airlines respect. Having a Seneca Degree will bode well for when you have enough experience to be applying to Airline jobs such as Air Canada. That being said, many of the other established Aviation Diploma programs in Canada are afforded that same respect. As well, having a Bachelor Degree in another discipline can also be valuable.

At the lower levels of the industry, a Seneca Degree will not necessarily help you get a job. In fact, there are a number of ‘bush’ types who feel that Seneca graduates are all ‘city kids’ who don’t know how to do a solid day’s work. Some graduates with an attitude have tainted the reputation. While I will be the first to admit that I have met a few grads who think that they are God’s gift to aviation, I’ve also met numerous other pilots (not from Seneca) who have that same attitude. The vast majority of my classmates and other Seneca grads I’ve met have been awesome folks. If you do graduate from Seneca, just be aware that you may need to go that extra step to prove that you’re not a jerk and you can put in a good day’s work.

The fact that Seneca’s program has been around for so long means that it has a lot of alumni working at many different airlines across Canada and the World. Having this type of networking possibilities can be very beneficial.

Finally, Air Canada Jazz tried a pilot program last year where top grads from Seneca and a number of other colleges were interviewed and successful candidates were offered spots in ground schools for potential First Officer positions. This program is not without controversy and it remains to be seen if it will be successful.

Conclusion: I enjoyed my time at Seneca and they really do have a great program. The fleet is great! In fact, you likely won’t fly on such nice and well maintained planes for a number of years when you actually start working! For students that want a degree, want to live near Toronto and want to get first rate flight training, Seneca is a great choice!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

When Flight Schools Go Bankrupt

A large helicopter flight training school in the US, Silver State Helicopters recently ceased operations. Here's an article from the latest AvWeb News Flash

Students Left Hanging By Silver State Closure

Shocked by the downfall of Silver State Helicopters, the Nevada-based flight school that declared bankruptcy earlier this week, former students and employees are telling AVweb they face major financial losses. Silver State Helicopters abruptly shut down operations at its 34 nationwide locations on Sunday afternoon, leaving more than 800 employees without jobs and more than 2,500 flight students saddled with millions in debt.

Company president and founder Jerry Airola has yet to speak publicly on the event, but a statement released by the company alleges that “a rapid, unprecedented downturn in the U.S. credit markets” curtailed the availability of student loans for the company’s students and resulted in a “sharp and sudden downturn in new student enrolment.”

Tony and Heather Sullivan told AVweb they were at a Super Bowl party when they got the news. Heather was employed as a receptionist and flight dispatcher at Silver State’s Houston facility, where her husband was a student. To date Tony has logged just 81 of the 200 hours he signed up to receive, and said he does not know how he is going to complete his training. Tony, who works full time as a human resources manager for a construction company, said he has an outstanding loan through American Education Services (AES) for approximately $70,000, the cost of the 18-month program designed to get students through their private, commercial, instrument and initial flight instructor certificates.

Mike Reiber, spokesperson for AES, told AVweb that AES is one of several companies that originated and serviced loans made to Silver State students. “Effective this past Monday we are no longer dispersing money to Silver State Helicopters,” he said. “Any disbursements that were sent out are being returned.” Reiber said that AES is awaiting direction from Student Loan Xpress, the guarantor of the loans. Student Loan Xpress spokeswoman Jenn Stark said Silver State should pay unused tuition back. “As a result of Silver State Helicopter School's decision to file for bankruptcy protection, we are currently working with its students to ensure that their loans are managed properly until the bankruptcy court decides upon a course of action to assist them." she wrote in an email to AVweb. She said affected students can contact Student Loan Xpress for information, at 888-568-2429, between the hours of 8 a.m.-5 p.m. EST.

Silver State Helicopters is a member of the Helicopter Association International (HAI). In an undated membership profile on HAI’s website, Silver State lists a fleet of 195 helicopters including 138 two-place Robinson R22s and 43 four-place R44s. HAI president Matthew Zuccaro told AVweb that the loss of such a large flight school will be felt throughout the industry. “It’s certainly of concern to us,” he said. Jerry Airola founded Silver State Helicopters in 1999 and quickly became known throughout the industry for using aggressive sales tactics to recruit students to the program.

One of the biggest problems is that many students had paid in advance for the courses. Therefore, not only do they now not have the cash, but if they want to complete their training, they'll have to invest extra as even if they do eventually obtain some of their loans back, it will likely be a fair amount of time before this occurs.

It is generally a bad idea to pay in advance for your flight training. Sometimes it's unavoidable due to the nature of the program - e.g. a college program, but you should be wary of what you invest.

This type of thing has happened in Canada. In 2001, Advanced Flight Training Centre in Barrie, Ont went out of business. At the time, the provided flight training for any students who wished to pursue the flight option in conjunction with Georgian College's Aviation Management Program (Georgian since has a new flight training provider). Numerous students lost thousands of dollars each. In fact, the operator of the flight school was charged with 22 counts of fraud and 22 counts of theft. Recently however,the charges were stayed (meaning that she would no longer be prosecuted) because of the delay in having the matter come to trial.

Be careful where you invest your hard earned training dollars.