Canadian pilots are increasingly aiming for higher-paying cockpits in airlines across the border.
At least 147 Canadian pilots applied for licences to fly commercial jets in the US in 2022, up manifold from the 39 in 2021, according to a Reuters report drawing on previously unpublished data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
For these Canadian pilots, the grass is indeed greener on the other side of the 49th parallel. In recent months, almost every major US airline has awarded its pilots big pay hikes and improved benefits to avert strikes. Further, even posing the threat of an exodus of Canadian pilots will work in favor of those who stay on to negotiate their contracts with homegrown carriers, which will lose their leverage as they grew strapped for skiller labor.
As more Canadian staff depart for US skies, the pilots who remain home will push their employers to catch up to the purses offered by American airlines.
“Pilots in the US have recently secured significant wage increases and other contractual improvements, creating an embarrassing gap with Canada,” Charlene Hudy, a union leader of the Air Canada Pilots Association, said in a statement after Delta pilots won their contract in March.
For the ACPA, which represents Air Canada’s 4,500 pilots, the annual 2% wage increase they’ve been receiving since 2014 doesn’t cut it anymore. Air Canada pilots, whose contract expires on Sep. 29, have been pressing for higher raises. And the airline, which just cut six routes citing a pilot shortage, may be more amenable to these demands as the supply of pilots tightens further.
Some Canadian aviation companies have already begun to follow in the footsteps of their US counterparts. Westjet, based in Calgary, gave its pilots a new contract raising wages by 24% over four years, making its crews the highest-paid on narrow-body aircraft in Canada. At Sunwing, a leisure airline headquartered in Toronto, pilots negotiated a 23% wage increase for 2023, with an additional 2.5% hike to follow in January 2024.
American airlines are desperately seeking trained pilots.
“A higher than normal number of pilot retirements, more stringent duty time regulations, increased flight hour requirements for commercial airline pilots, reductions in the number of military pilots entering the commercial workforce and other factors have caused a shortage of pilots that could materially adversely affect our business,” American Airlines, the US’s top carrier, warned in a regulatory filing as far back as 2018.
Five years later, airlines are still trying to solve this shortage—some by advocating raising the retirement age from 65 to 67, and others by asking to reduce the number of hours a trainee needs to clock before flying.
Not everyone agrees that there’s a shortage, though.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world’s largest union of pilots, suggests that the claims of shortages are an attempt to distract from corporate mismanagement. The union argues that airlines assumed demand for air travel would recover slowly in the aftermath of the pandemic and so “bumped pilots off larger aircraft, displaced pilots across aircraft and fleet types, and put pilots on inactive status”—all to cut costs. Now that air travel has bounced back rapidly, airlines are falling short on time, money, and training capacity to fill positions.
At United, pilots have been refusing promotions to captaincy—not because they’re unqualified or unavailable, but because the schedules are erratic and the pay raise unsubstantial. Eligible pilots with American Airlines and Delta are also turning down such opportunities. With so many captains’ seats going vacant, flights schedules are being cut down.
“So, although we don’t have a pilot shortage, we do have a shortage of airline executives willing to stand by their business decisions to cut air service and be upfront about their intentions to skirt safety rules and hire inexperienced workers for less pay,” the ALPA wrote on a webpage “debunking the pilot shortage myth.”
46%: The compensation hike that American Airlines pilots negotiated last months, to apply over the next four years
34%: The boost to average pilot pay over four years that Delta pilots negotiated in March
40%: The pay hike over the next four years that United pilots negotiated
5,000: The number of pilots who could stay on the job if the retirement age were to be raised by two years, according to the Regional Airline Association (RAA)
6,000: The glut of pilots between 2019 and 2021, when a total of 15,591 new air transport pilot (ATP and R-ATP) licenses were issued, even as just 9,671 pilots retired, as per ALPA
$63 billion: The volume of taxpayer subsidies that US airlines received in three tranches to maintain their workforce during the pandemic
80,000: The predicted global pilot shortage by 2032, “absent a downturn in future demand and/or strenuous efforts by the industry to bolster the supply of pilots,” according to the management consultancy Oliver Wyman
It’s not just Canadian pilots who’re looking to the US for fatter paychecks. The overall number of foreign applications also doubled to 1,442, the FAA data shows. Globally, pilots are looking to cash in on the combination of high travel demand and historic wage increases in the US aviation industry.