As part of my job, I’m in the air a lot, heading off to meet with members across the country.
In doing so, I can’t help but notice airlines pushing the federal government to delay or weaken new fatigue rules, blaming an expected shortage of pilots in the years to come.
If the industry expects to be short of pilots, maybe the more pressing issue is why any young person would want to become a pilot in Canada in the first place?
For one thing, it’s incredibly expensive to become a pilot. Before becoming a professional pilot, students must go through flight school, costing upwards of $90,000.
There’s also no stable career path to move from trainee to becoming a pilot with a major carrier- far from it, in fact. Graduating from flight school just puts students on the fast track to precarious employment and a paltry salary of roughly $25,000 a year. Another challenge is that first jobs for pilots are often in northern Canada and other remote areas, far away from friends and family.
Even if a new pilot can somehow cover the financial cost of becoming a pilot, and accepts the possibly of moving far from home to work, they also face bigger safety concerns.
According to the Transportation Safety Board, remote routes accounted for 88 per cent of all accidents, 87 per cent of all fatalities, and 82 per cent of all serious injuries involving Canadian commercial aircraft in the past decade.
Ask any pilot in Canada how challenging – and tiring – these rural and northern operations can be. Canadian pilots working with the Safer Skies coalition, of which Unifor is a member, have collected the concerns of their colleagues.
Frankly, the responses are startling:
One young pilot said he was reluctant to complain about unsafe flying conditions, saying "I was too young and too worried about being fired."
Another described long days running the fuel farm, including sales to other airlines, and washing mud off his airplane at the end of each day on top of his regular flying duties.
Before even boarding his plane for his 14-hour shift, one pilot said, he would receive shopping orders through his cell phone for people along his route — essentials such as diapers, boat tar, bread, peanut butter. They would pay him with cheques signed over to him. He'd give the change back, and cash all the cheques at the end of each week.
In a desperate effort to cut costs, airlines are doing themselves and their workers a grave disservice by calling for a delay in addressing pilot fatigue. In fact, airlines are actually fighting against better working conditions for new pilots – which will only discourage more young people from going into aviation.
While the draft Regulations Amending the Canadian Aviation Regulations published in the Canada Gazette last July set out how long a pilot should be on duty - from the moment they report for duty to the moment they park their aircraft at their destination and are free of all responsibilities - the government’s proposal falls short of what scientific authorities, including NASA’s Ames Research Center, are calling for.
This is especially true when pilots fly overnight, when the dangers of fatigue are even greater. The new regulations would allow for pilots to be on duty for 10.5 hours – two and a half hours longer than the Federal Aviation Administration allows American pilots to fly in the United States, and two hours longer than NASA recommends.
The government is also proposing a two-step implementation that forces the most vulnerable pilots, those at smaller companies and in rural and remote areas, to wait up to four years before the rules providing fatigue protection to come into force. Pilots at major airlines would be protected after just one year.
Forcing the most vulnerable pilots to wait the longest makes absolutely no sense. In fact, no pilot should have to wait more than 12 to 18 months for relief.
If Canada’s airline operators want to be sure of an adequate supply of pilots, they need to rethink their approach. It’s time they stopped forcing new pilots into precarious employment.
To attract more young pilots, they should work hard to ensure a safe and stable workplace, instead of pushing a plan that puts pilots and the flying public at greater risk.