Canadian Flight Schools and COVID-19
Dr. Scott Firsing, who manages Alsim’s operations in North America, speaks with Dr. Suzanne Kearns, associate professor of Geography and Aviation at the University of Waterloo, and Patrick Richardson, founder, president and chief pilot of Quebec-based Select Aviation College, to gain a better understanding of how Canada’s flight training providers are weathering the COVID-19 pandemic.
How has your university or business adapted to confinement measures?
Suzanne Kearns: In mid-March, the University of Waterloo made the decision to switch its courses to online only. They paused all classes for one week to allow instructors to rethink how to finish courses using only online delivery; and to allow students who were travelling to get back home.
All non-essential workers – faculty and staff –are working from home. Student residences have been closed as much as possible, and the semester ended with online-only courses. The following summer semester is offering only online classes and faculty have been asked to prepare for an online fall semester. Education is continuing, but it looks very different from the past.
Patrick Richardson: Select Aviation College ceased its classes and flight training on March 13. Then it took us a few days to get the online classes up and running, by March 19. We kept providing housing to all students in our accommodations. We did have a few empty ‘quarantine’ apartments, which we fully disinfected and planned on stocking with food and necessities. Thankfully, we did not need to use them.
On the maintenance side, the team remained in full force, seizing the opportunity to continue with fleet expansion and preparing airplanes and helicopters for our busiest flying season. We currently have over 30 aircraft on our flight line ready for our students. We look forward to ferrying our brand-new Seminole from Piper’s factory in Vero Beach, Florida, to Drummondville, but it’s not an easy task with current travel restrictions.
We are also busy working with Alsim to install two brand-new ALSIM AL250s that have arrived in our Drummondville facility. These sims will provide much needed relief to our highly used Alsim ALX, thus enabling us to quickly catch up on the flight and ground training program delays caused by the pandemic. Lastly, we have re-planned the spring college program and provided maximum support to prepare students for their upcoming Transport Canada PPL-CPL-IR and ATPL exams.
I’d like to stress, that during this time, the comfort and safety of our 120-plus in-house students remains our number-one priority… academic support is very important, as well as being available to offer moral support for our students is paramount.
When do you expect to get back to flying and will there be any specific safety measures in place to insure the safety of your students and instructors?
Kearns: I can’t speak to the flight training, as that’s under the discretion of our partner, the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre. Pat can probably speak more to this. However, as for our classroom activities everything is being offered online. Both instructors and students are continuing their education from their homes.
Richardson: The college side of Select is governed by the Quebec Ministry of Education and, though we are yet to receive exact guidelines, our government has made several statements hinting that the school system will be one of the first to reopen. Our team has been very proactive with implementing measures that will keep our students and staff safe upon resuming flights and classroom education. We will be ready once we get the green light from the authorities.
What challenges have your students been facing and what has your college, Transport Canada and governments been able to do to help?
Kearns: Challenges are broad and far-reaching. The government announcement on April 23 to provide student financial support will make a tremendous impact. However, there are other unique challenges [for] international students who couldn’t return home because their home country had closed the borders. These displaced students need support – organizations can consider if they have part-time jobs that can be completed remotely or at a distance – as many students are in need. These needs are particularly critical – basic housing and food are in question.
Richardson: Similar to Waterloo, but on our side most students opted to stay in Drummondville. Many of them have part-time jobs in companies providing essential services and have been quite lucky to keep busy over the last six weeks. Numerous students work for our college: either on the ramp, in dispatch, maintenance or simply to provide tutoring; and several of them qualified for Canada’s ERB program, which was also a blessing.
Students had no choice but to comply with confinement measures. It was hard for them. However, a very large majority opted to make the most of the situation and spend the time getting ready for their upcoming exams.
With regards to international students, have you been offering accommodations throughout the pandemic?
Kearns: The residences are closed, but I think there is a contingency for emergency situations. We’re exploring all the options we can find to offer support. There has also been a Student Emergency Support Fund to offer short-term financial help to students facing difficulties.
Richardson: Yes – We have continued to offer accommodations to our students in housing. Clear instructions were shared with them from the outset on how to abide by social distancing and quarantine guidelines.
Has immigration Canada been providing any form of assistance or relief to students who wish to pursue their careers post-graduation?
Kearns: The student support announced by the Canadian government is also available to students and recent graduates. To summarize, it appears they will soon be able to claim a new Canada Emergency Student Benefit as part of a $9 billion package.
Richardson: Our college program graduates can apply for a Post Graduate Work Permit, PGWP, that is granted for a period of two to three years for most of our programs. Normally, students need to be physically in Canada to be eligible for the PGWP. However, Immigration Canada has announced exemptions allowing an international student with a valid visa to continue with his or her program, without needing to be physically in Canada.
How will the pandemic affect Canadian Airlines? Will they all survive?
Kearns: Organizations that were unsustainable before the pandemic are facing difficulties with being able to continue operations through this crisis. We can expect a leaner industry post-pandemic, but as an industry we have faced downturns before; 9/11, SARS and the 2008 financial crisis all caused direct downturns that formed a V-shape, as the decline was matched by an equally steep recovery.
However, it has been estimated that the recovery from COVID-19 may form more of a U-shape, as the resulting recession may slow recovery efforts. We are still a growth industry. Organizations that take this opportunity to plan for the future will be in the best position to support future recovery efforts.
Richardson: I recently spoke to one of Select’s Class 1 instructors and Air Canada First Officer Ricardo Teoli about this. Ricardo believes, with this pandemic, experts predict people will be afraid to travel due to the severity of the virus and being in close proximity with others. However, according to a recent survey by the International Air Transport Association, 60 per cent of travelers would be ready to board a flight in a period of two months following the end of the pandemic, 40 per cent see themselves waiting at least six months whereas one out of 10 participants would wait at least one year.
Initially the trend will be slow to recover, but it is most likely that after intense quarantine people will want to get out and travel again. The issue will be the cost of airlines trying to re-cover, therefore, causing more expensive fares. This will create the birth of more low-cost and ultra-low cost carriers, parented by larger airlines.
It’s Ricardo’s understanding that companies in Canada are generally well-funded like Sunwing, who is parented by TUI FLY, Westjet by ONEX (in a purchase agreement), and also Air Transat in a purchase agreement with Air Canada. The trend being that as long as smaller companies incorporate themselves with larger successful and financially stable organizations, then they can be competitive and survive the pandemic with a strong post-pandemic recovery.
It is also worth mentioning that the reason for survival of smaller regionals such as Jazz, Sky Regional (under Air Canada Express) and Westjet Encore is they are all working for one individual strong parent company. People will always travel and this will pick up more so once there is a vaccine, hence the reason for an expected U-shaped recovery.
Canadian companies are talking about restricting, what does this mean?
Richardson: Companies in Canada will need to restructure to cut costs and begin making profit again. To do so, they will need to use aircraft that are more fuel efficient, like the newer A220s recently purchased, on longer routes and potentially downsizing the size of aircraft on domestic and transborder flights. Another theory is that due to the requirement of social-distancing, they may need to use larger aircraft that seat 300-plus for a passenger load of half its capacity. While I see the logic, it would not make financial sense, unless the carrier can somehow make it worthwhile.
Companies like Air Canada have already given incentives for pilots to retire early; to allow the company to retain newly hired pilots at the bottom of the seniority list. Approximately one senior pilot gives the company the chance to retain three new pilots. With the announcement that Air Canada had intentions of a furlough for 600 pilots, the retirement incentive became very important. While I cannot comment on the details of the incentive, I can say that approximately 150 pilots have taken the offer and thus left room for the company to retain 450 pilots. This is significant and there are many pilots at the top of the pilot list who will retire in the next few years, leaving more room for hiring.
In the last 10 years, the industry has seen exponential growth, but, in the last few decades, it has had its share of ups and downs. The importance is that it does recover because it remains the quickest and safest way to travel across the globe. With companies making airfare more affordable for everyone, the demand will still see an increase. This being said, new security and screening protocols will be adapted and adjusted at all major airports.
I also foresee various levels of government continuing to invest in general aviation in order to maintain links and accessibility with remote areas. For anyone wanting to become a pilot, I would say now is still the time. While the economy is recovering, pilots in training will be working toward their qualifications so that when the industry does recover the newly trained pilots will be ready to accept positions.
Suzanne, the last word goes to you – Any final thoughts from a university perspective?
Kearns: I would challenge and encourage all aviation professionals to think back on their experience as a student or recent grad. This is always a time of uncertainty, yet this is tremendously exacerbated for young people in the midst of this pandemic. Any support that professionals can offer students, such as emotional support, advice or encouragement are all extremely valuable. This is a time to remember the spark that brought us all into this field and nurture that spark in the next generation as they need encouragement – and will be vital to our industry’s future recovery efforts.