Canadian air transport industry hones in on labor shortage during 2022 ATAC conference

By Dayna Fedy-MacDonald | November 22, 2022

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 11 seconds.

Following a restricted event with mask mandates in 2021, the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) conference returned this year to a sense of normalcy — at least from a pandemic perspective.

Held in Vancouver, British Columbia, from Nov. 15 to 17, ATAC 2022 saw 65 exhibitors — a 15 percent increase over last year — and some 400 attendees. Not surprisingly, a recurring topic among the Canadian commercial aviation stakeholders in attendance was the ongoing labor shortage, which has hit aviation (and a number of other industries) hard.

The 2022 ATAC conference saw over 50 exhibitors and some 300 attendees. Dayna Fedy-MacDonald Photo

The association’s president, John McKenna, acknowledged that there are a number of challenges, including the personnel shortage, that the air transport industry is facing, with each one linked to another in some way.

“You’ve got problems with labor; you’ve got supply chain problems; you’ve got fluctuating fuel costs; and you’ve got government inefficiency in delivering service,” said McKenna.

He noted that while there was initially a shortage of trained personnel, shortages are now affecting all levels of employment.

For example, “ground handlers and all the people that work on the tarmac to help support our industry, they’re facing the same crisis,” noted McKenna. “And these are not people that require three or four years of training; they get trained on the job.

“Ultimately, attracting people to our industry is very difficult,” he added. “But every other sector is going through that, so we’re competing against them for that manpower.”

In order to make aviation more accessible to workers, ATAC is asking the government to modernize regulations, as well as training curriculums.

“We’re asking [the government] to do more competency-based training, rather than just regulatory textbook type of stuff,” McKenna told Skies. “We’re asking the government to modernize its regulations; for example, to become an AME (aircraft maintenance engineer), it’s three years of training, at least. And then there’s about two years of apprenticeship before you can start earning a living. So many people say, ‘I’m going to do something else.’

“We’re also asking the government to help us set up a loan guarantee program,” continued McKenna. “If the government is backing a loan, that person is going to have easier access to the money and probably a better interest rate. And there’s little risk for the government, because the money is provided as students progress their training. . . . So we’re saying, for a few million dollars a year, hundreds of pilots could be trained.”

Of course, the labor shortage is a contributing factor to ongoing supply chain issues. But it also contributes to challenges that the association (and industry) is experiencing with Transport Canada, which then exacerbates the personnel shortage in the field — creating a bit of a catch-22 situation.

Transport Canada is dealing with a large backlog of requests, and the department is taking significantly longer than usual to respond.

Air Transport Association of Canada president John McKenna walks the tradeshow floor at the organization’s annual conference in Vancouver, B.C. This year, 52 companies exhibited products and services geared toward the air transport industry. Lisa Gordon Photo
Air Transport Association of Canada president John McKenna walks the tradeshow floor at the organization’s 2016 conference in Vancouver. Lisa Gordon Photo

“There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done, but isn’t being done, like planes not being approved to get on the operating certificates; employees not getting their license renewals; visa applications not being processed for foreign workers,” explained McKenna.

One issue that Transport Canada is currently facing is a knowledge gap among its employees. “There are a number of people there that don’t yet have industry knowledge,” he noted.

On a positive note, McKenna said membership is on the rise for the association itself, which is celebrating 88 years. Moreover, this year’s conference saw a “record number of exhibitors for Vancouver.” The annual show alternates back and forth between Vancouver and Montreal, and ATAC is expecting a record number of exhibitors in Montreal next year, too.

“This year, we came back to our normal format,” said McKenna. “However, it shouldn’t be called ‘going back,’ because we don’t want it to be business as usual. We want to expand the appeal of our conference and widen the reach of the people that we attract to it.”

He added: “The lull during the pandemic gave the board an opportunity to reassess what we’re doing. We created a Strategic Planning Committee, and we looked at our membership, our events, our governance, our revenue streams, and said, ‘What needs fixing?’ We looked at, ‘How can we improve the conference?’ We’re on the right track, and it was very encouraging for us to see board directors get involved in this.

“The association is repositioning itself to make itself more appealing, but its existence is by no means threatened,” concluded McKenna. “We’re just trying to modernize and ensure that our service offers what is needed in the industry.”

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  1. I can say for certain that the elephant in the room has, and always will be the low pay.
    You want to attract and retain quality AME’s? Pay accordingly and stop burning through low time AME’s that eventually get out because of the crap wage, bad work conditions, high demand and massive liability.
    The same can be said for pilots but not to the same level as what I’m seeing in the AME world. Lots are flooding to the states or getting out of it altogether. The industry always lays low on this topic pointing blame elsewhere, this article is no exception.
    It’s part of the management strategy. Keep a hand full of experienced guys and flood the rest of the shop with first year AME’s and apprentices chasing type endorsements and logbook signatures all to save a few bucks.

    “ 571.11 (1) Except as provided in subsections (2) and (7), no person other than the holder of an aircraft maintenance engineer (AME) licence issued under Part IV, specifying a rating appropriate to the aeronautical product being maintained, shall sign a maintenance release as required by section 571.10.

    (6) If a maintenance release is signed by a person in respect of work performed by another person, the person signing the maintenance release must personally observe the work to the extent necessary to ensure that it is performed in accordance with the requirements of any applicable standards of airworthiness and, specifically, the requirements of sections 571.02 and 571.10.” Let that sink in.

    When everyone’s crying Pilot AME shortage and I see wages in 2022 in the $30/hr range for an AME with >$100 grand worth of type training and xxx years experience no wonder nobody wants to do it anymore.
    You can make more and have a better life pushing dirt in a hole (literally).
    As for pilots they’re always going to be in supply, but again who’s the one best equipped (or has the appetite) to work for $20/hr flying right seat in a narrow body with a PIC or endorsement carrot dangling for a few years and again a large list of prerequisites and thousands of hours experience.
    There is NO SHORTAGE of skilled AME’s and pilots, there’s a shortage of them willing to work for what is offered.

  2. The first companies that acknowledge the required substantial increase to pay and improvements to working conditions will be the ones best positioned to remain competitive in an employees market. Covid provided a reprieve from the ramping up of the pilot shortage but the pendulum is quickly swinging the other way and catching many operators on their back foot as they are slow to offer industry leading WAWCON.

    1. There is no pilot or AME shortage in Canada. If I had a nickel for how many high time ATPL’s, CPL’s and AME’s I’ve witnessed throw in the towel (often under five- ten years) in the decades I’ve been doing this racket I’d be sitting on a handsome retirement bonus.
      The staff are out there domestically, most of which couldn’t handle the crap schedule, high demand/liability, and even worse pay. People that aren’t desperate for the work (trapped with nowhere else to go, usually financially because of the crippling wages offered) or enamoured by aviation generally don’t last from what I have observed.
      Id love to know the statistics on average industry tenure by voluntary attrition (the average length pilots and AME’s last in the industry before they quit). I’d also love to know the statistic ratio of how many licenses have been issued to now working age personnel to how many are actually still active, I bet that ratio would be in the 1/10th or less ratio (that stat can most certainly be calculated with the tombstone and license data for personnel TC has on file).
      This industry in Canada will ALWAYS be an employers market, and there will never be a shortage for the reasons I’ve already described in this and other posts on this and other articles.
      Canadian industry especially has been sounding off about impending pilot and AME shortages since the 1980’s as a marketing tool to keep the hopper full of fresh grist for the mill (colleges and flight schools even more so). The good thing these days is the electronic medium where experienced pilots and AME’s like others and myself can share the experiences we’ve had VS what’s being published in articles like this or propaganda from industry and training organizations for new blood. That definitely is something newer generations pay attention to when deciding a career path which wasn’t available to generations past.
      I hope more personnel contribute to their experiences (good and bad) in electronic medium like this as I try to as much as possible. It most certainly will positively influence the industry.

  3. Why on earth would would I ever want to work as a pilot at any of the airlines in this country?

    I have ATPL 6000 hours tons of relevant experience and I work for a 703 operator. I’m exactly who the airlines need.

    But if I want to work for the airlines I’m looking at a 50% pay cut to work for Flair or Lynx or Westjet, a 60% pay cut to work for Air Canada or Swoop, and 70% or more to work for Jazz or Encore. And then I’ll have to be based in a big city.. most likely Toronto. And if I’m working for the low cost carriers my pay will be barely higher than I get now flying a King Air and I’ll be working 3 more days a month likely with deadheading and commuting on top. Add uncertainty of layoffs and mergers and bankruptcies where you might have to start at the bottom again.

    Perks don’t cut it anymore. Oh yeah.. ZED fares so I can camp in the terminal while I try and get on flights that are all oversold and delayed. And any number of fluff gifts that management thinks will make us feel better when really we need to pay our mortgages.

    You want pilots?

    Higher wages based on years of experience not a seniority number. Better based where cost of living is more reasonable or paid guaranteed travel and crew housing. And a schedule that allows for a life outside of work.

    It’s all $$$$… but just think how much it’s going to cost you if your planes don’t fly..,, and every vocation from pilot to AME to flight attendant to ground crew to CSA is a single point of failure in this industry. You don’t have one of those.. you don’t fly.

    1. I agree with every point you make short of industry needing to increase wage.
      I’ve been doing this a very long time and I can assure you there is no interest in increasing pay-scale commensurate experience at any 604, 702,703,704,705 operation or amo.
      This article seems to be looking at the issues in a vacuum and not the big picture. Wages and working conditions are at the core of the issue for domestic workers. Visit any Canadian aviation forum and this topic has been beaten to death ad nauseam for decades.
      Canadas toothless labour laws and open border policies are exactly what airlines and other operators lean on when the willing talent pool to work for what’s offered isn’t large enough to fill domestically.

      In order for things to get better employment labour policies protecting the domestic workforce in Canadian aviation will have to drastically change to protect the Canadian worker.
      For now (as always) operators and amo’s will draw from young naive pilots and ames chasing carrots (endorsements / additional ratings etc) and the heavily abused TFW program, and of course the aviation enthusiast group .
      Couple this with the negative public image Canadian aviation has and it’s an un-winnable situation for Canadas aerospace work force.
      There are more than enough high time pilots and ame’s in Canada to fill the labour shortage and then some, it’s the ones WILLING to work for what little is offered that’s in short supply.
      That is the reason wages have always been down in Canada, and will continue to be severely subpar compared to the rest of the developed world. I have, as have others suggested how this will be remedied, but the way Canada’s mentality is, things will never change. At least we’re a good training ground for low timers and the rest of the world to get experience. I can’t blame people working here to get experience, then bouncing out of Canada for more money (TFW’s and Canadians alike). I myself have been working in the USA for years because of the low wages and crap conditions Canada affords its workforce, and I don’t anticipate coming back anytime soon.

  4. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done, but isn’t being done, like planes not being approved to get on the operating certificates; employees not getting their license renewals; visa applications not being processed for foreign workers,” explained McKenna.

    How many smoking guns can you possibly fit into a one paragraph quote?

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