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 over 50 exhibitors — a 15 percent increase over last year — and some 300 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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