Estimated reading time 32 minutes, 56 seconds.
For too long, the Canadian aviation mentality has been focused on less people doing more work – but things have changed, and operators need to wake up and smell the Jet-A.
That’s the message from pilots who say enough is enough: They need to earn a living wage that will enable them to afford an apartment, support a family, and maybe even take an annual vacation.
Following an article in the April/May issue of Skies (recently published on skiesmag.com), where northern and remote aviation operators described their struggle to comply with new flight duty time (FDT) regulations while at the same time grappling with a shortage of experienced pilots, the magazine heard from several pilots who wanted to share their side of the story.
While their experiences all have common threads, there is one theme that rang out each and every time: If operators want experienced pilots to go north and stay there for any length of time, they’re going to have to pay for it. That translates into a total compensation package that affords pilots a realistic lifestyle and the means to achieve their own personal career goals.
“There has to be a reasonable opportunity and a reasonable incentive to go up there,” said Eric Schletz, an Edmonton-area Class 1 flight instructor who has logged more than 5,000 hours total time at 702 (aerial work), 703 (air taxi), 704 (commuter), and flight training operations. He has filled the roles of chief pilot, operations manager, chief flight instructor, and person responsible for maintenance control.
Today, the 37-year-old chooses to be a flight instructor because of the job’s flexibility.
“I can be at home when my kids are sick,” he said. “I can do community and charity work and sustain relationships because I have a flexible schedule. That’s not the same for pilots working at northern operations.”
The way Schletz sees it, the Canadian aviation industry is going through a painful, but necessary, reset. A number of factors are coming together to create today’s pilot shortage.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing the consequences of historic actions and opinions,” he said. “You could watch a cavalcade of young pilots go up north and come back. I’ve seen lots of friends go up north, never touch a plane, and work 10 to 12 hours a day. The cliché is being told you will get on a plane after six months of working the ramp, but then it turns out to be a year and still nothing.”
As a flight instructor, Schletz also sees students struggling to afford their pilot training, and he believes the lack of funding is another contributor to the pilot shortage – people simply can’t afford their training anymore.
Lastly, it’s about the total compensation package: “Why would someone work in the Arctic with extreme duty days if they could make the same money here? Or fly older aircraft if they could get on a new 737? People have to be incentivized and make logical decisions.”
He compared being a pilot to being a lawyer. While lawyers see a return on their education relatively promptly, pilots can spend $100,000 on their training only to be stuck on a dock, making poverty-level wages. There’s just no sense in that, he said.
And, while Schletz acknowledged that operators’ costs have risen steeply in recent years, he also pointed out that a pilot’s cost of living has increased, too.
“We have all gone through this. We’re all in this together. We need to come up with reasonable solutions, like access to [pilot training] funding and a reasonable wage.”
Part of any attractive job offer is the schedule, and this is where Schletz feels Canada’s new FDT regulations may actually help operators retain pilots.
“The regulations are fantastic,” he told Skies. “It makes it possible for pilots to operate safely and not be expected to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Flying is a safety-sensitive position. Find another industry where it is safe to work that much. A doctor won’t be doing that non-stop, and if they have to do an extended shift, they’ll be given meals, naps, breaks, and compensated appropriately.”
For his part, Schletz said he chooses to restrict his own schedule, “because the accident rate after 11 hours on duty rapidly increases.”
But in the North, “pilots have an increased workload where they are flying more legs in remote locations with less support.”
David – not his real name – is an 1,800-hour pilot who is now working as a first officer in corporate aviation. Prior to his current job, his first real aviation experience was flying a Pilatus PC-12 in the North, where he was based in Iqaluit on two-week rotations.
He agrees with Schletz that pilots need to earn a living wage to make staying in the North a viable choice.
“The pay where I worked was unrealistic to live on,” recalled David. “I felt I was being taken advantage of, especially during the pandemic when my employer got a bunch of new contracts and expanded their fleet. Housing was provided, so that was a benefit; but all things considered, pilots are the lowest paid people in the Nunavut area. Pilots are the lowest tier, even though we’re the ones who can get people in and out of there.”
David’s annual salary as a new first officer on the PC-12 was $30,000. Before he left the company, he asked for an inflation increase and was boosted to $32,500.
“In the meantime, you had competitors who realized they had a serious problem with staffing and set the industry standard for captain’s pay at $90,000,” recalled David. “There was no change at my operator. Captains at my company were still making $60,000.”
David worked in the North prior to the implementation of Canada’s new FDT regulations, but he feels they have likely improved things for pilots. His typical duty day was 14 to 15 hours, but a first officer’s responsibilities also included towing, fueling, washing, and cleaning the aircraft. That often boosted his total time on the job to 17 hours.
“Physically, I was exhausted. The first two days of the two-week rotations were manageable, but I was constantly finding myself drowsy in flight. I was getting an average of four to six hours of sleep each night; the fatigue was physically and mentally draining.”
At the end of the day, David feels he is a better pilot for his northern experience, but the low pay and gruelling schedule made it unsustainable.
“When I look back at what I did up there – cross-winds and gravel strips, and real hands and feet flying – it was second to none. But after one year, I said, ‘OK – I have 1,000 hours and for the salary I’m making, this is a bit too ridiculous.’”
In answer to the “one size does not fit all” counter-argument to the new FDT regulations, David said he understands where charter operators are coming from because every day is different. While he still thinks 12 hours is a fair duty-day limit, he’s not necessarily against smaller operators having fewer restrictions with some concessions – like shorter duty rotations, for example.
Regardless, he feels changes are underway in the Canadian aviation landscape.
“I think our economy is shifting to be more similar to the U.S. in terms of people being more valued for what they do,” said David. “I think people are realizing that when you have a job, you only do work associated with that job title.”
On the other hand, change isn’t going to happen overnight.
Concluded David: “People want to see conditions change drastically, like in the U.S. If they’re making $40,000, they want to go to $120,000 in one jump. People need to be more patient, though – attitude and expectations need to be a bit more realistic.”
Pursuing a sustainable lifestyle
Pilots like Mitch, a 4,000-hour Vancouver-based cargo pilot, said it’s hard to be patient when the cost of living in Canada’s major centers is so high.
His first flying position in 2016 was as a survey pilot in northern Ontario, before he moved to B.C. to fly a Beech 1900 for a regional airline. A year ago, he took a job with his current employer, flying a Boeing 757 and 767 out of Vancouver.
Mitch said experience is the quality that’s lacking in the Canadian pilot pool right now.
“There are a lot of individuals like myself trying to get out of Canada because of how horrendous the pay scale is here,” he said. “The vast majority of us want to go somewhere where we can get paid well and have a good lifestyle. Many are going through the process now. I have a friend who works for Envoy and he’s at US$140,000 per year as a first officer on the Embraer E175.”
To work in the U.S., Canadian pilots must have a high level of experience and be sponsored by an American employer. It’s not an easy feat, so other Canadian pilots opt to work with recruitment agencies that help them find employment in the Middle East or Asia.
The escalating cost of living is making it impossible to work for the low wages paid by Canadian operators, said Mitch. He has been forced to take a part-time job, in addition to flying, to help pay his bills in Vancouver. The situation is untenable, so he and his fiancée, who is originally from Mexico, are planning to move there permanently. Mitch said he’ll keep his current job, with his employer offering the incentive of regular airline flights back to Vancouver whenever he has a shift.
“I need money now,” said Mitch of his decision to move. “I need to be able to afford to live now. I don’t think the first officer salary has changed much at the big Canadian airlines since the early 2000s. If I make the same salary as someone in my position did 23 years ago, that’s not going to work. The cost of living is so high… interest rates, housing, you name it.”
Aside from pay, pilots are no longer willing to work non-stop while living on the road.
“People like to know they can go home at the end of the night,” explained Mitch. “Not everyone wants to commit their time to two weeks on, two off. It taxes your family time and puts a strain on your family. Post-Covid, people realized they can work closer to home.”
Asked specifically about northern opportunities, Mitch said, “Nobody wants to freeze in -45 C temperatures for $40,000 per year. People don’t put their resumes in for a job if it doesn’t pay what they want. I’d rather get paid well now, when I’m young, so I can have the lifestyle I want.”
He said northern operators could sweeten the deal by offering a commuting policy so pilots can return home regularly, along with staff housing, a congenial work environment, health benefits, and cost of living pay.
“I can almost guarantee that you’d see an uptick of resumes going in there.”
In terms of the new FDT regulations, Mitch said they give crewmembers more time to recover. He operated under the old system in his last job, where he worked up to 14 hours a day, doing 10 to 12 daily flight legs, and working up to 18 days per month.
“The old regs gave operators more flexibility to work pilots to the extreme,” he commented. “Nowadays, there is an advantage to the crewmember to be able to plan their lives around the regulations. I’d like to believe these regs will eventually contribute to pilot retention.”
Mitch said pilots are out there, but they simply want to be paid what they are worth.
“Anybody being offered a good salary and benefits package will stick around long-term,” he predicted. “Just to know that when you do hit retirement, you will be able to live comfortably.”
An experience shortage
According to John, a recently retired airline captain and training pilot, the experience shortage in aviation is real. As a former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), John – who has 25,000 hours total experience – believes the airlines are not geared to fast-track pilots through to the left seat.
“In the military, people are upgraded pretty quickly to captain within two to three years,” he said. “The first minute that candidate is in the cockpit, everything is geared to training them to be captain. Typically, at the airline, you show up, do your job, and go home. The training is great, but on a daily basis, captains are not usually under any obligation to train the first officers.”
However, John said he could practically see the experience level in the cockpit dropping over his last years on the job.
On long haul flights, before he left for prescribed rest, he felt compelled to review emergency procedures and escape routes with the relief pilots. Several years ago, John said he would have left the cockpit without thinking about it.
While the new FDT regulations didn’t affect his airline much because it already had stricter regulations than the norm, John said they are a step in the right direction – but they don’t go far enough.
“They still didn’t bring Canada on par with other countries,” he said. “For example, we would cross the pond to Europe with two pilots. Other carriers wouldn’t even look at it without three pilots.”
He said that when Transport Canada was writing the new regulations, pilots and flight attendants at the major airlines said Canada needed tighter rules like the rest of the world. But at the same time, northern operators said they couldn’t work under those conditions.
“So, the government was caught in the middle,” summarized John.
However, he believes that pilots in the North work hard and will benefit from the new rules.
“I take off out of Toronto in February and I’m deicing, then 15 hours later I land in Asia in a typhoon and torrential rain. But a guy up north is putting up with that six to eight times in a single day! In the meantime, I get hourly updates on space weather and these guys are working twice as hard as me, with a worse duty day and fewer resources. It doesn’t make sense.”
When it comes to enticing pilots to go north, John said paying them more may be the cost of doing business today.
“Safety is expensive,” he mused. “So, whether it’s operating two pilots or three pilots, or four instead of three, or shorter duty days – it costs more and more. And, if the government wants these remote communities to be serviced, there has to be a political will to support the airlines so they don’t operate at a loss, or they have to charge more for their services. There certainly is a tension there between the carrier being commercially viable and the communities needing service.”
Gerd Mannsperger agrees with John that experience takes time to build, and it’s sorely lacking in the industry right now.
As the owner of Alpine Aviation in Whitehorse, Yukon, Mannsperger is technically an operator – but he’s also a 32-year northern pilot who founded his own company 26 years ago when there were no flying jobs to be had.
He said there has been “phenomenal” upward movement through the industry in recent years.
“There is just nobody out there with any level of experience that has not been vacuumed up,” said Mannsperger. “People are in positions that would have been unheard of five years ago. But it still takes time to build experience.”
The pandemic caused many to leave aviation, he added, whether through early retirement or opposition to vaccination mandates. Some pilots and aircraft maintenance engineers retrained in other occupations to find work.
As a small 703 floatplane operator, Alpine Aviation offers mining and exploration support, northern hunting and fishing excursions, and some 702 aerial work such as wildlife surveys. Today, Mannsperger tries to attract pilots who are looking for fun and enjoyable northern adventures. He employs three full-time pilots and two part-timers, and believes he offers them a fair wage.
“I start guys from a bare commercial licence and I can say that in the first year, they often make significantly more than a new co-pilot with a feeder airline,” he told Skies. “I know there are segments in the industry that have been quite abusive and the pilots’ comments about them are correct. But other segments are completely different. When I came through the ranks, you couldn’t buy a job and people were being abused. I think that is long past us, though.”
Within the last year, Mannsperger said his pilots’ average wage has increased by one-third, and he sees this across the industry.
“We are paying more money for less experience,” he noted. “A less experienced pilot means we have to do more training, so that cost goes up dramatically to maintain the level of safety. Our training is likely triple of what is required by the regulator just to operate – and that’s in addition to all the other rising operational costs.”
In his business, Mannsperger has to be wary about passing those escalating costs along to the customer.
“It’s a balancing act. The pain threshold of what people are willing to pay for our services is what it comes down to,” he said. “When people can’t do those fly-in trips anymore, we’ll have no more revenue coming in. When customers can’t afford us, we will just die.”
Mannsperger believes northern and remote operators will eventually be forced to cut service levels.
“Either we throw unprepared pilots at the job, resulting in incidents and accidents, or we cut down to doing just what we can with the experienced pilots and bring the new pilots along slower,” he said. “You will see a significant decline in service overall, or an increase in incidents and accidents. We cannot just put people into jobs that are beyond their capabilities.”
He said all northern operators can do is try to provide a better work experience, despite the lure of southern Canadian jobs that might be more lucrative – or positions outside the country that might pay several times as much.
“One of the guys I started this company with has been flying out of China and Hong Kong for years now,” said Mannsperger. “When he moved there, he easily tripled his salary.”
The lure of foreign jobs is strong, and all the pilots participating in this story said they can’t blame anyone for job hunting outside Canada.
Flight instructor Eric Schletz said a North Carolina flight school is paying US$73,000 to start as a flight instructor, while a first officer at a U.S. carrier makes more than a 12-year veteran Boeing 787 pilot in Canada.
“People are saying ‘enough is enough,’” said David, the corporate first officer. “American Airlines pays US$590,000 per year to captains, and it only takes five years to get to that. Meanwhile, getting to $300,000 or $400,000 at Air Canada takes 30-plus years. The low wages they are offering make it impossible for some pilots to go there and accept the salary drop, especially if they have to live in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. They simply cannot afford it, especially with a family. But nothing will change as long as applications keep coming in the door.”
Added John, the retired airline pilot: “I’m not sure how they can pay them that much more (in the U.S.), but they do. I was in Hong Kong talking with another crew, and their jaws dropped when they heard what we were getting paid compared to them. People would definitely go to the U.S. if they could. Unfortunately, it’s like a knife fight in a phone booth to get any sort of wage parity between like carriers around the world.”
Pilots are adamant: They need to be paid a living wage that will help them get out from under crippling student debt, rent an apartment or even buy a home, and carve out a comfortable lifestyle. For many, it’s simply a matter of going wherever the money leads – even if that’s out of the country.
The cost of doing business has certainly skyrocketed for northern and remote operators, but pilots point to the rising cost of living as evidence that reasonable solutions are needed for all.
Indeed, working together for the common good may be the only way around the many challenges facing Canadian aviation, particularly for northern and remote operators.
“We have pilots pointing at operators, and operators pointing at pilots,” said Gerd Mannsperger. “That is all old school stuff. We can’t make this industry function on outdated ideologies like that. It will take everyone together to solve these problems, including the regulator.”
Instructor Eric Schletz offered some constructive ideas.
“If northern operators want to keep pilots up north, train people from the local communities,” he said. “We also need an easier financing model that will incentivize student pilots and then a pay scale that allows people to pursue their dreams while providing for a family.
“In the end, it’s a market economy,” he concluded. “If you want someone to live remote, you have to pay them for it. People will make a reasonable choice and pursue the lifestyle they want.”