Mr. Speaker, or perhaps I should say House traffic control, thank you for granting me a clearance to speak to Motion No. 177, the challenges facing flight schools, from my colleague both in the House and in the sky, the member for Kelowna—Lake Country.
The aviation industry as a whole is an important one, and the biggest challenges facing flight schools stem from wider problems in the industry, namely a shortage of qualified pilots. As many of us here know, this is not a problem unique to aviation. The worker shortage across my region is significantly affecting all sectors. Restaurants are having trouble staying open, not for a lack of clients, but for a lack of kitchen staff. The 24-hour Tim Hortons are not. Even garages have significant ad campaigns on local radio stations to hire mechanics, and the story is repeated in just about every industry across the region.
According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the aviation industry will be short some 620,000 pilots over the next 18 years. We are in a period of feast, and there will no doubt be challenges that come along that affect this prediction over the course of that time, but the need will still be significant.
When I started flying in 2005, the industry was in a state of famine. My first flying school, which closed not long after I earned my licence, had an abundance of flight instructors, each paid by the flight instruction hour, on contract, rather than on a salary. Many, if not most, had second jobs to get by, as well as significant five-figure loans. If someone got a job offer off the instructor circuit, it was a huge victory worth celebrating.
Times were tough in aviation, and while I dreamed of being a career pilot like my grandfather, Jack Ross Graham, before me, who flew from the early 1930s until his death by pulmonary embolism in 1959, a direct consequence of his time in flight, there was no way I was giving up a good career as a news editor in the free software world for the high-risk gamble of following that passion.
The industry since that time has faced a complete reversal. Around the world, aviation is on an upswing, and rather than going overseas looking for students to keep idle fleets of training aircraft occupied, schools are struggling to find instructors to meet the demand of largely overseas students coming on their own.
That leads to another point. I cannot think of very many industries where it is the novices, rather than the seasoned veterans, who teach the beginners. For the majority of new commercial pilots, their first job is either as a bush pilot or as what is called a class 4 flight instructor. Veteran career instructors exist, but are extremely rare and are largely a dying breed.
For most new pilots, flight instruction is a job held for the minimum amount of time possible, until what they call “a real job” becomes available. Today, these instructors often serve as little as four months' time, meaning new pilots, if they are lucky enough to find an instructor, risk changing instructors several times through their training, which can slow down the process.
There are some instructors who for various reasons choose to remain instructors, and I am privileged to have one of this type as my own instructor, but that has not always been the case for me. When I started as a student at a flying school called Aviation International at Guelph Airpark, then the busiest uncontrolled airport in the country, I had someone I felt to be an exceptional instructor in Rob Moss, then both a civilian and a military instructor. Over the course of my training, Rob got an interesting job flying in northern Ontario. Then I was bounced through Andrew Gottschlich, Scott Peters, Marcia Pluim and Alex Ruiz before finally getting my licence in the summer of 2007. I had to check my logbook to make sure I did not miss anyone. While each of them was both a good pilot and a good instructor, there is no doubt that the constant change in instructors slowed down my training. That was one of the pitfalls of not training full-time.
Another of these pitfalls was that during this time when I filed my flight training receipts with my taxes as a tuition expense in view of training toward a new career, Canada Revenue Agency rejected these significant deductions because I had not yet achieved a commercial licence and therefore it did not count, though I was told by many in the industry that if I made a federal case out of it I could get that fixed.
It is little roadblocks like this that tend to cascade into larger problems for those trying to get into the industry. Some of these affect the schools themselves, which have onerous and difficult processes to be recognized as schools by provincial education departments, complicating matters further.
It is certainly a particular personal pleasure for me to talk about aviation here in the House. One day, early on in my flying career, I was learning the basics of how to land a plane. Every landing, though successful, was sloppy. Off the centre line, a bit of a bounce, a bit more of a bounce, a little long on our short runway, maybe an incorrect radio call or two, and I was getting frustrated. I was very focused, doing exactly what I had been taught in ground school and shown by the aforementioned Rob. Then, a few circuits in, Rob and I got into a long and interesting conversation about politics. At the time, it was the dying months of the Martin administration, and there was a good deal for us to talk about. We kept talking about federal politics until I had pulled off runway 32 at the far end and started taxiing back for the next circuit. It was only at that point that we realized that I had made my first perfect landing. Politics, it seems, was the solution. Indeed, we never missed opportunities to talk about politics while I was learning to fly. Now, fast forward 13 and a half years and a couple of hundred flying hours in a dozen different aircraft, and it is a complete reversal to at last be able to speak about aviation on the floor of the House.
I have, on a few occasions, travelled to events in my riding by plane rather than by car. I have landed at all five registered land aerodromes in the riding, including La Macaza/Mont-Tremblant International Airport, where I rent a Cessna 172M.
There are another five registered heliports, five registered seaplane bases, numerous unregistered runways and the occasional temporary airfield plowed into a frozen lake, several of which I have also landed at, and helipads, as well as float plane docks on many of the approximately 10,000 lakes that decorate Laurentides—Labelle. A search last year of Transport Canada's airplane registration database found about 300 aircraft that are registered to postal codes in my riding.
Aviation is, then, an important part of the Laurentians. I am a member of the Association des aviateurs de la région du Mont-Tremblant, Association des pilotes de brousse du Québec, and the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association.
The first puts up an event we call Jeunes en Vol every year at the Wheelair field in Mont-Tremblant, itself the site of Canada's first commercial airline. There have also been such events in Sainte-Anne-du-Lac and La Minerve over the past couple of years. At five of these, I have participated as a volunteer pilot, offering rides to three kids at a time aged eight to 17 in what we call “aerial baptism”. All the organizations I mentioned put on this type of event all across Canada.
At its core, it is a way for the aviation industry to tackle the problem of self-renewal. In offering 200 kids at a time the opportunity to experience flight in a small plane, for the first time in almost all cases, we are inviting interest in pursuing a career in the industry. I have taken a total of approximately 50 kids up so far in this manner, as well as my own four-year-old daughter Ozara, who now insists, depending on the day, that she will either be a member of Parliament, a pilot, or most recently, a flight attendant.
Almost every time I take a new person up in the air, I see their eyes light up. Only once has one of the kids also lit up a plastic bag, but we do try to avoid that. The interest is there. People want to fly. The challenges of learning to fly are numerous. It is expensive. A new pilot will typically incur $75,000 or more in debt before obtaining their commercial licence, and while prices have climbed steadily over the 13 years that I have been flying, schools are reticent to further raise prices. Of course, this leads to the vicious circle of instructors being few and far between.
Aviation medical examiners are rarer than they need to be, and if people do complete the courses, there are not enough flight test examiners to meet current demand. Now, I am lucky to have an extraordinarily competent instructor in Caroline Farly, the owner of Aéro Loisirs at La Macaza. For her, finding and retaining additional instructors for the three Cessna 172s used for land training at her school, and many others like hers, is a huge challenge.
A newly commercial-rated pilot with 200 hours, the minimum necessary to get a commercial license, can easily pick up a job for mines in Central Africa, for example, or obscure routes across the Far East, making decent money, and it does not take a whole lot of hours to pick up a flying job back at home.
Sticking around to be a class 4 instructor, the class that an instructor remains until they have successfully trained at least three students, at which point they become a class 3 instructor, is hardly a lucrative way to live. Generally on contract and paid by the instruction hour rather than by the duty hour, they are severely constrained by weather and aircraft availability, among numerous other factors, and there is no way to clear their $75,000 in debt in anything resembling a rational timeline.
While schools themselves face challenges with things like noise complaints from neighbours who get annoyed by the constant buzz of planes climbing out and circling over their houses and then landing, the biggest challenges are in incentivizing commercial pilots to pass on their skills.
There is, for example, zero incentive for an experienced pilot to pass their thousands, or tens of thousands, of hours of knowledge back to the next generation. It is left to the new pilots to train the newer pilots. More than that, there is little incentive for those new pilots to even take on that challenge, because their immediate concern is getting themselves out of the mountain of debt they incurred to become a pilot in the first place, a debt that many succumb to before even finishing their license, resulting in high drop-out rates, further stressing the system.
There are obvious places to look for solutions. Only about 7% of Canada's pilots are women, and indigenous communities are severely under-represented, yet are generally more reliant on aviation than most of the rest of society—though many reserves do not even have an airstrip. Ensuring that reserves have a landing strip, a plane, and a flight and mechanical instructor could kill several birds with one stone, but not before we address the financial challenges of getting into the business, for which solutions have been proposed, such as granting student loan forgiveness for instructors who serve a certain amount of time and/or in a remote location.
There are myriad other ideas, and this study would help us identify and evaluate them. The problem, of course, is wider than just pilots, and also speaks to the related problem of the death of the apprenticeship economy. Aviation mechanics, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and pretty much anyone hiring in the aviation industry has stiff competition for competent, trained workers, and so a deeper study of these challenges and how we can address them is not only warranted, but urgent.