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Canadian Discount Airlines Worsening Pilot Shortage?

Betting Big on Low Costs

Recent years have seen Canadian air-travelers spoiled for choice of low-cost, no-frills, discount airlines.

Start-ups the likes of Edmonton-based Flair Airlines, Calgary-based Lynx, and WestJet subsidiary Swoop have expanded rapidly over Canada’s vastness in the post-COVID era, each gambling on the notion that budget-conscious, travel-starved Canadians exist in sufficient numbers to support the additional capacity with which subject air-carriers have inundated the market.

Notwithstanding campy advertising and attestations of superiority, all low-cost airlines operate on a singular and simple premise; passengers willingly forfeit white-glove service and amenities in exchange for low base fares. Among low-cost airlines, carry-on and checked baggage, snacks, beverages, and cancellation protection are add-on items for which customers must pay separately. Such considerations are provided compulsorily by conventional air-carriers.

Whether or not the surfeit of post-COVID low-cost airlines will long survive the crowded air-travel market remains to be seen. Airline industry analysts, however, posit the rapid proliferation of new air-carriers, flights, and aircraft is putting pressure on the aviation labor market and possibly exacerbating the pilot shortage with which the air-transport sector is ostensibly contending.

Mike Doiron, president of Moncton, New Brunswick-based Doiron Aviation Consulting, states: "If I have a new airline that starts up with ten airplanes, I theoretically need about two-hundred pilots, and getting new pilots trained doesn't happen overnight, even though the demand for pilots has skyrocketed."

The reported dearth of qualified Canadian pilots has been attributed to myriad factors, principal among which are an aging workforce, COVID-related layoffs, early retirements, and skyrocketing training costs.

In January 2023, Canadian low-cost airline Sunwing suffered a series of holiday-season flight disruptions and cancellations which the carrier blamed in part on a lack of pilots. Sunwing management excoriated Canada’s federal transport committee, stating the Canadian government’s decision to deny the airline’s application to hire 63 Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) had adversely impacted service, and detracted quantifiably from Sunwing’s bottom line and future bookings.   

ALPA Canada president Tim Perry called Sunwing’s argument “absurd,” and asserted his belief that Canadian airlines in the practice of compensating their pilots fairly ought never find themselves needing to hire TFWs.

Mr. Perry conceded, however, that the labor challenges with which the Canadian airline industry is currently contending are serious, and went on to state that Canadian northern and regional airlines are struggling to recruit certified pilots—in part because new low-cost airlines are hiring aviators who would otherwise have sought positions with smaller air-carriers. Regrettably, low-cost airlines struggle with retention insomuch as their pay-scales lag woefully behind those of major Canadian carriers such as Air Canada and WestJet.

"They are introducing a ton of capacity onto the market, at low cost, and it's added to the draw on pilots," Mr. Perry opined. "But those entry level jobs [at discount carriers] historically have not been career destinations. So those airlines end up with a higher training burden per unit of productive flying."

A 2018 report compiled by the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace set forth that one-third of Canadian air-carriers cited a lack of qualified pilots as their principal skills shortage. The report showed that Canadian air-carriers’ collective need for experienced pilots had begun to outpace the national supply of such, and projected the industry would need an additional 7,300 aviators by 2025.

Airline analysts have noted with concern that a number of small Canadian airlines have resorted to lowering their hiring standards—reducing flight time minimums and/or waiving college degree requirements—for purpose of filling vacant cockpit seats. Such measures diminish the overall quality of pilot cadres, and are apt to worsen flight disruptions and cancellations by populating airline cockpits with marginally, or even underqualified flight-crews.

"The shortage of qualified, experienced personnel is really going to put the whole industry upside down for the next little while," Mr. Doiron concluded.



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