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Aspiring pilots say licence processing backlogs at Transport Canada slowing careers

CALGARY — Against the backdrop of a global pilot shortage, hopefuls aspiring to a career in the skies say their Canadian licensing applications are taking far too long to process.
The flight deck of a WestJet Airlines Boeing 737 Max aircraft is seen after arriving at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

CALGARY — Against the backdrop of a global pilot shortage, hopefuls aspiring to a career in the skies say their Canadian licensing applications are taking far too long to process.

Student pilots who have completed the training requirements for their private or commercial pilots' licences say their credentials are being delayed due to what they say are unacceptably lengthy processing times at Transport Canada.

Adam Sheard, a Vancouver man who hopes to become an airline pilot, completed all of the requirements for his commercial pilot's licence — a combination of ground school study and a minimum of 200 hours of flight training — in May of 2022.

After submitting the necessary paperwork to Transport Canada, he said he expected to receive his licence within a couple of months — which other pilots have told him used to be the normal wait period.

However, Sheard said he ultimately didn't receive his documentation until January 2023. 

“I finished my commercial license, and for seven months the only thing I had was my private license," Sheard said, adding the long wait meant he could not apply for a starting job at any of this country's small, regional carriers.

"If you’re trying to apply for jobs, they’re going to say we need to see your commercial pilots’ licence," Sheard said.

"I ended up taking a job as a flight instructor instead, for that very reason. I’d be working at my school, and they know I finished my CPL, and they could vouch for me.”

Sheard said early in the pandemic, Transport Canada warned aspiring pilots that processing times were taking longer than usual. While he said that's understandable, he doesn't know why — three years later — it's still taking the regulator so long to issue pilot certifications.

Colin Mackenzie, another pilot hopeful, said many trainee pilots in Canada are experiencing extreme delays with the processing of their aviation medical exams — the certificates of health that all pilots need before they can fly.

He said his own experience pursuing medical certification has been "terrible," adding that he's been waiting for months since submitting his medical data, with no response from Transport Canada.

“If you try to call them, there’s no way to speak to anyone. And even with email, it’ll be months before you hear back," Mackenzie said. 

"There’s no system in place to track your case; they don’t even have case-file tracking. It’s just like you've entered a black box, and you may or may not get a reply.”

In an email, Transport Canada spokesman Hicham Ayoun did not say whether the regulator is encountering general difficulties or delays in pilot licence processing.

However, he did say that when it comes to new aviation medical certifications specifically, wait times can sometimes exceed targeted service delivery timelines. 

Transport Canada processes approximately 60,000 applications for aviation medical certificates annually, he said, most of which are for re-issuance of existing medical certificates and are processed quickly.

But new applications take longer, and can encounter delays if additional tests or physician reports are required.

"Therefore, Transport Canada is unable to provide an average wait time for these cases," Ayoun said. 

Mackenzie and Sheard said they're frustrated by the situation not only because they believe it's slowing their career progression, but also because they keep seeing headlines about the North American pilot shortage.

Aviation analysts say the pilot labour shortage is worsening based on a variety of factors including an aging workforce, pandemic-related layoffs and early retirements, and spiralling training costs.

In January, vacation airline Sunwing blamed its spate of holiday season flight disruptions and cancellations in part on a pilot shortage, telling the federal transport committee that the government's decision to deny the airline's recent application to hire 63 temporary foreign workers (TFW) for pilot roles impacted its ability to deliver service.

Sheard said hearing about a pilot shortage while at the same time having his own career put on hold because of delayed paperwork is frustrating.

"I've heard of people waiting a year to get their licence documents. So you've got all these people waiting to get into the workforce, and then we're hearing that there's a pilot shortage," Sheard said.

A 2018 report by the Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace said that a third of flight operators in the country at that time cited pilots as their biggest skills shortage. The report said the need for experienced pilots was beginning to outpace the available national supply, and projected the industry would need an additional 7,300 pilots by 2025.

Ayoun said Transport Canada continues to assess human resource and training needs, and changes to the triage and assessment of files have already taken place to improve processing efficiency. 

"Transport Canada is committed to undertaking significant transformation efforts and is working to process applications as quickly as possible, without compromising safety," he added.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press