Northern airlines feeling the strain as Canada faces shortage of 6,000 pilots

A Canada-wide pilot shortage is hitting the North especially hard, as small regional airlines struggle to keep pilots on staff while their national counterparts quickly scoop them up.

Some airlines have had to cancel flights as they struggle to keep pilots

Jim Heidema says he has had increasing difficulty holding on to pilots, who are being recruited earlier than ever by bigger airlines. (Submitted by Jim Heidema)

A Canada-wide pilot shortage is hitting the North especially hard, as small regional airlines struggle to keep pilots on staff while their national counterparts scoop them up sooner than ever.

"People don't stick around as long anymore," says Mikey McBryan, general manager of Buffalo Airways.

"Normally people would stay three years; now they're maybe a year and a half before they've moved on to Air Canada Jazz."

Fort Smith-based Northwestern Air Lease is also feeling the pressure They've had to cancel flights due to a lack of pilots, as staff leave for southern airlines.

"It's a love/hate relationship," says Jim Heidema, chief operating officer for Northwestern. "It's nice that they hold our pilots in high regard, but the bad news is they take them from us too soon."

The Air Transport Association of Canada estimates the industry will face a shortage of 6,000 pilots over the next 20 years, due to low wages for new pilots and the high cost of training.

Baby boomer pilots are also retiring from senior positions, while the industry is quickly expanding: according to Transport Canada, between 2010 and 2016, airlines added more than 2,200 new aircraft.

Nearly 4,000 new pilots got their licences during that time, but according to Victoria, B.C., flight school manager Gerry Mants, that's not enough to meet demand.

"The industry is drawing pilots up and into the next step in their career much quicker than it's ever been before," says Mants.

"It makes it more difficult for the middle carriers to find people, because the big guys are taking them in a hurry."

Northwestern's Heidema says the bigger airlines are sucking up entire classes of flight school graduates to fill their rosters, and new airlines like NewLeaf and Jetlines are adding to the competition.

Good news for new pilots

The North has a special relationship with its pilots and airlines. Unlike in most of the country, planes are a literal lifeline for many communities in the territories — relied on heavily for supply runs and medevacs.

Northern pilots have maintained their romantic image, braving the wilderness to carry supplies and people to and from remote places; the Pilots' Monument is one of Yellowknife's best-known landmarks.

But becoming a pilot in the North can take years of menial labour, as qualified pilots often spend years as so-called "rampies," loading and unloading cargo and acting as flight attendants while they wait for their promotion to the controls. 
Pilots' Monument is a landmark in Yellowknife's Old Town celebrating the aviation history of the North. (Submitted by Ashley Fowlow)

For those new recruits, the shortage is not necessarily a bad thing. They're moving through the ranks and getting coveted flight training hours much sooner than expected. One new pilot at an N.W.T.-based airline, who asked not to be named, said she has already advanced to near the front of the line for flight time, nearly a year ahead of schedule.

Heidema says he's "aggressively" hiring new people by touting the benefits of working in the North.

"One of the things we do is sell what we've got up here," he says. "Our pilots are home every night; the pilots get paid very well."

He adds that for some, the allure of the job isn't the fast pace of career progression, however, but rather the slow pace of life.

"There are other people that just love the lifestyle, the pace of the North."


Jimmy Thomson is a former reporter for CBC North.