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'No pilots, no planes': Why one small regional airline is cutting service eastern Quebecers rely on

Pascan Aviation says it's lost nearly a third of its 60 pilots to bigger airlines since January, forcing the airline to cut some flights between Bonaventure and the Magdalen Islands and look for other routes to scale back service on.

Pascan Aviation says it's lost nearly 20 of 60 pilots to bigger airlines since January

Pascan Aviation says it is cancelling two of the six flights a week it normally flies out of Bonaventure airport to the Magdalen Islands at the height of the tourist season, between June and October. (Isabelle Larose/Radio-Canada)

A pilot shortage is forcing a small Quebec regional airline, Pascan Aviation, to scrap some flights and reshuffle its schedule in eastern Quebec this summer.

The airline is cancelling two of the six flights a week it normally flies out of Bonaventure airport, on the Baie-des-Chaleurs side of the Gaspé Peninsula, to the Magdalen Islands at the height of the tourist season, between June and October.

It's also looking at ways to adjust other regional routes.

Pascan's co-owner, Yani Gagnon, says the airline has lost nearly a third of its 60 pilots since the beginning of the year.

"It's a very serious problem. Small carriers like Pascan Aviation are being targeted by the big ones — whether that be Air Canada, Transat, WestJet, Sunwing. They're drawing on our pool of pilots," Gagnon told Radio-Canada.

"No pilots, no airplanes," is the bottom line, he said.

To meet the high demand during the tourist season, Pascan plans to maintain or even increase the number of flights from Montreal and Quebec City to popular destinations like the Magdalen Islands, Gagnon said. But that means other less-travelled regional links will see the number of flights reduced.

Gagnon says in the summer, just 25 per cent of passengers flying out of the Bonaventure airport are headed for the Magdalen Islands, while 75 per cent are going to Montreal or Quebec City.

"We're trying to focus on [the routes] where there's going to be more volume," he said.

Yani Gagnon, co-owner and vice president of Pascan Aviation, says his regional airline has been losing pilots to major transportation providers since the beginning of 2022. (François Gagnon/Radio-Canada)

Still no promised regional transport plan

For the mayor of Bonaventure, Roch Audet, the pilot shortage is just one more facet of the bigger problem of ensuring people in eastern Quebec have regional air service when they need it.

"It's always the Baie-des-Chaleurs that's affected by these service cuts," he said.

He doesn't blame Pascan Aviation, however, for the decisions it's being forced to make.

"What airlines often look to do is to bring people from big city centres to the regions, not the opposite," he said.

Air Canada has actually begun reinstating some of the regional flights it cancelled during the pandemic.

In principle, that means people living in the Gaspé, on the Magdalen Islands and on Quebec's North Shore have three airlines to choose from, since Newfoundland and Labrador's PAL Airlines began serving parts of eastern Quebec last year.

However, Audet and Joël Arseneau, the Parti Québécois MNA for the Magdalen Islands, say people in the region need a reliable, long-term solution to their transportation woes.

In January, Quebec's Transport Ministry said it was working on a long-term plan to secure regional air travel, but five months later, there are still more questions than answers.

Arseneau has raised the issue often at the National Assembly and has filed a petition, calling on the CAQ government to help finance a Quebec co-operative that would offer cheaper flights.

"What's the solution for the future, and how are we going to expand the services we hope to have in order to increase volume?" asked Arseneau, in an interview with Radio-Canada.

Based on a report by Radio-Canada's Isabelle Larose and Shanelle Guérin

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