Many small Canadian carriers were already struggling with pilot shortages, so the last thing the country's aviation industry needs are brutally expensive battles with larger, wealthier U.S. airlines to retain talent.
The number of Canadian pilots seeking to fly in the United States tripled in 2022, according to previously unreported U.S. government data, raising fears of deepening shortages in Canada as pilots seek higher wages.
Some 147 Canadian pilots applied for licenses to fly commercial jets in the United States in 2022, up from 39 in 2021, according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data. The number of overall foreign applications roughly doubled to 1,442.
High travel demand in the United States, where pilots are securing historic wage increases, is attracting foreign aviators, despite delays and high costs of immigrating, according to lawyers, unions and pilots.
While small, the increase in U.S. applications is worrisome for regional Canadian carriers, which like their U.S. counterparts, are wrestling with staffing shortages as they lose pilots to larger airlines, industry experts say.
It could also put pressure on Air Canada during negotiations with its pilots, whose contract expires on September 29.
Air Canada said this week it would halt six non-stop flights from Calgary at the end of October because of “resource pressures” due to an industry wide shortage of regional pilots.
“It’s definitely a concern,” said John Gradek, a faculty lecturer in aviation management at McGill University in Montreal.
At Sunwing Airlines, at least 10% of the roughly 490 pilots are applying to work in the U.S., said Mark Taylor, president of the Unifor union local, which represents aviators at the company.
Taylor said he has raised the issue with Sunwing, which didn’t return requests for comment. Sunwing has been acquired by WestJet Airlines, which likewise did not respond to requests for comment.
Two Sunwing pilots, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not advised their employer of their plans, said they have obtained licenses to fly in the U.S. and are awaiting immigration paperwork to move, due to the higher pay and the high cost of living in Canada’s large cities.
Attorney Jean-Francois Harvey said about 29% of the 560 foreign pilots he’s helped over the last 12 months are Canadian and fly for Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing.
Air Canada said it could not comment on “individual pilot career choices,” but said it does not “have difficulty attracting pilots” to its main carrier.
According to Air Canada pilots represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the hourly pay gap between the Canadian carrier and United Airlines is expected to grow from 3% in 2013 to 92% in 2024 for one category of experienced pilot. Air Canada pilots earned more before 2013.
Gradek warned that the “cascading effect” of larger airlines recruiting pilots away from smaller carriers would lead to reduced frequencies and service cuts on regional routes.
John McKenna, chief executive of the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC), which represents smaller Canadian carriers, said his members are already cutting frequencies due to staffing shortages.
“Everyone is suffering right now,” he said.
(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by Andy Sullivan)
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Photo credit: More Canadian pilots are seeking work in the U.S. as the country grapples with a pilot shortage. Digital Vision / Getty Images