Interest in aviation industry soaring despite pandemic

By James Sebastian-Scott

One of the hardest hit industries, since the COVID-19 pandemic started, has been the aviation industry. 

In September 2020, the International Air Transport Association downgraded its traffic forecast to reflect a weaker than expected recovery. The organization said at the time, air traffic was expected to be down 66 per cent compared to 2019. 

The report outlined that North American carriers' traffic saw a drop of 92.4 per cent as of last August. 

The drop in numbers for traffic was in part because of the travel measures the Canadian government implemented in March 2020. The government implemented travel restrictions for international travel to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Since then, the restrictions have evolved into more stringent measures. 

According to Statistics Canada, air travel recovery as of December 2020 remained flat. Most travel continued to be domestic with international demand remaining low because of border travel restrictions and enforcement of quarantines for international travelers. 

Despite all of those measures and restrictions, interest in the aviation industry as a career remained high. 

The University of Waterloo offers a four-year honours bachelor's degree in aviation. There are two choices for a focus for students. They can earn a science in aviation or geography in aviation. 

Dr. Suzanne Kearns is an associate professor of geography and aviation at the University of Waterloo and she said that UW's program is one of the largest university level aviation programs in Canada. 

“We have about 300 student-pilots that are part of the university program,” Kearns said, “in September 2020, we took in about 120 students into the first year of the program and that really met our capacity because of the capacity limits of our flight-training partner.”

Kearns said that when she joined UW's aviation program about five years ago, the first-year class intake was only about 30 students.

“We've seen applications increase every single year, but due to the pandemic-related backlogs in training, we had to cut our admissions this year by 50 per cent, so we are only taking in 60 students but we had more than 800 applications for those spots.”

That's not unique to the University of Waterloo's program. Kearns said that is across the board in any post-secondary institutions that offer these programs. 

The program is partnered with the Waterloo-Wellington Flight Centre which is located at the Region of Waterloo International Airport in Breslau. It's one of the largest and most experienced flight schools in Canada. 

Kearns said that having this partnership and a local airport to train student-pilots is a tremendous strength. 

“Students will travel to the flight centre several times a week to complete their flight training so they will graduate with the licenses and credentials they would need to start looking for employment as a professional pilot.”

Kearns said if the region didn't have an airport in Breslau, students would have to fly to a larger or more robust airport in order to get the training required. 

“During the course of a pilot's training, there are certain types of equipment they would need that only larger airports would have,” she said, “there's some ground-based infrastructure for certain types of approaches and if we weren't located next to that big airport in Breslau, then the students would have to fly to a bigger airport to practice those activities and manoeuvres,” said Kearns. 

The Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre requires you to have your private pilot license before obtaining your commercial pilot license. To achieve the commercial pilot license, students need a minimum of 200 hours of total flight time in aeroplanes, which includes a minimum of 100 hours of pilot-in-command time as well as 20 hours of cross-country pilot-in-command time including 35 hours of post-private dual instruction, as well as 30 hours of post-private solo flight time. 

Kearns said part of the increase in interest is the work that's being done to grow the program and to attract, educate and retain the next generation of aviation professionals. Kearns volunteers on the International Civil Aviation Organization which is a specialized agency of the United Nations. Part of her work with the organization is to help ensure there is talent ready and trained to support a sustainable future in the aviation industry. 

“They have a committee called the 'Next Generation of Aviation Professionals'. Before the pandemic, there was a looming shortage of personnel to support the air transport sector and we were increasingly starting to see that bubble up. Flights with small regional carriers were being cancelled in busy summer months because of the lack of available flight crew,” said Kearns, “that affects travel, businesses as well as safety and efficiency of operations.”

She adds that it's exciting for the students when they are able to fly a plane for the first time. 

“I think that the students would tell you that it is an amazing and remarkable experience,” she said, “I always joke with them because it doesn't matter how good my classroom-based courses are because nothing can compete with that feeling of being able to fly your own aircraft in the real world,” said Kearns, “it's a really amazing experience (…) I know through my own experience that sense of freedom and excitement that comes with it.”

Kearns said that Boeing and California Aeronautical University released a report at the end of 2020 expecting a re-emergence of personnel shortages in aviation as soon as the end of 2021. 

“The reason being is not only is travel expected to pick up but there's also been significant attrition in the aviation workforce during the pandemic because during layoffs, these are smart, capable people, they can find lots of other jobs in other areas and anyone who could take an early retirement has,” said Kearns, “I would actually suggest that as soon as the recovery takes the form that we are expecting (…) that there are various pieces of evidence that suggest that it will be a good industry to be a part of with a lot of career opportunities.”

Kearns believes the future of aviation will be strong knowing the work she has been able to do to attract more young people to the industry.

“We are recognizing that aviation is going through the most difficult time in its history and so many people who work in the industry are completely dedicated to surviving the pandemic,” she said, “I've been working with colleagues across campus and we have a proposal we are working on to establish something we are calling the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics.”

Kearns adds the proposal hopes to really look at three key pillars with sustainability. 

“We would look at the people, planet, and profit of the industry. From the people point of view, we would try and optimize the efficiency of our flight training and supporting that population group where there's professional development, rewarding careers, and supportive of equity, diversity, and inclusion,” she said, “from an environmental standpoint, it's going to be critically important for the future of our industry that we are considerate of the negative environmental impacts and that we are managing that as best as we possibly can.”

That includes looking at more efficient flight paths from a flight management perspective, looking at electric flight training aircraft that are not producing fuel or noise emissions to the same levels as well as looking at simulation or augmented virtual reality to replace some in-craft training when there's evidence there to support it. 

Kearns adds that the third pillar is the economic piece.

“It's really about technology. It can be a blessing and a curse,” she said, “it can really support the sector and support the person but we don't want a situation where the technology is replacing or overstepping the person where there's safety and authority dynamics that it's creating, so there's really effective and evidence-driven integration of technology to support the aviation sector as well.”

In the airlines, Kearns said that about 5 per cent of pilots are female and that's something that is being worked on to change within the industry.

“Aviation hasn't really been able to accomplish more equal representation for female pilots. We don't only want to answer questions from within the context of aviation, we want to draw-in expertise and new ideas. We want to learn what lessons have already been learned in other fields and start bringing those into aviation and helping address our challenges and helping us our challenges and setting us up for the future.”

She adds it's been a big challenge but it's not just about attracting but it's also about educating and retaining more diverse employees.

“We need to optimize how we teach people. We have to ask if our teaching tools are biased against certain types of people and if we identify that, 'can we fix it to make it supportive of all different types of people finding success?', said Kearns, “but the third part is that even after completing the education process, it comes down to retention. Are there aspects of the work-life balance that are particularly not conducive to women being in those roles in the longer-term? It's a multi-step process where we need to look at it holistically in order to solve that problem.” 

Kearns adds it's not just about attracting and retaining women in the workforce but it's also about being a more welcoming industry to people of colour, and from different backgrounds like the LGBTQ community, where the industry needs to make sure for it to have a sustainable workforce for the future that aviation is a welcoming and valuable field for every type of person regardless of their background.

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