The Edmonton Flying Club is struggling to match students with instructors after widespread layoffs during the pandemic.
New students must spend about nine months on a wait list before starting pilot training.
The issue? There’s no one to teach them.
“I joined about a year ago and I started noticing it the second I walked in,” said student David Hine in an interview with CBC News.
Hine joined the club a year ago and now works as a flight dispatcher.
“There’s lots of people wanting to fly and lots of planes, but not enough instructors to get through everyone right now.”
And as travel demand increases, a lack of qualified pilots is pushing airlines off course. Pre-pandemic, around 1,100 pilot licences were issued annually to satisfy the needs of large carriers like Air Canada and WestJet, regional planes and cargo airlines.
According to government data in 2020, less than 500 pilot licenses were awarded. That number fell below 300 in 2021, then to 238 last year.
The Edmonton Flying Club isn’t the only place being impacted by shortages.
The airline, Northwestern Air, formerly ran a flight school in Fort Smith, N.W.T., just above the border between Alberta and the territory.
But despite offering a $100,000 salary, the airline said it hasn’t been able recruit a new instructor.
“I’ve got airplanes that I’ve had parked for months because I don’t have anybody to fly them,” said Brian Harrold, owner and operations manager of Northwestern Air.
The airline offers a range of flights and flies passengers from Indigenous communities for their medical appointments and firefighters battling the wildfire crisis.
But Harrold said they’ve had to cut back flights by about 35 per cent.
“It’s just not an aviation problem, there’s a shortage of workers everywhere,” he said.
Harrold added that the shortage of workers has made it difficult to attract people to work in smaller rural communities.
Young pilots who’d often go North for their first job can now find work in cities.
“These days, they’re moving straight into the middle carriers,” Harrold said. “And so, we’re having some real problems attracting people here, let alone keeping them.”
Tough road ahead for the industry
Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education has promised $11 million in aviation support over the next three years.
Some of that money will go to creating a new bursary for pilot training.
The provincial government has also committed about $73 million over the next few years toward the aviation and tourism industry in the province.
But small regional carriers need support now, according to John Gradek, a McGill University lecturer and aviation management expert.
“The industry segment that’s being hit the hardest is small regional carriers [and] Northern Canadian traffic and what I would call the entry-level domain for pilots because the airlines are consuming that resource very quickly,” Gradek said.
He added that shortages will worsen and expects some smaller communities to see their aviation services suspended, as is the case for Northwestern Air.
For people like Hine, that means doing additional work to keep things moving.
“I definitely like to get flight instructing a try. It’s a lot of fun getting to teach people about the planes and I definitely see the enthusiasm that the other instructors have about it.”
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