Brooke Taylor, CTVNews.ca Writer | Tuesday, March 30, 2021
TORONTO — Canadian airlines are resuming and expanding routes across the country ahead of an expected uptick in air travel this summer, but pilots need to brush up their skills before they can return to the skies.
After a year of strict travel restrictions and diminished routes, pilots haven’t been able to log as many hours in a plane as they normally would, and some are heading back to flight simulators before getting back in the cockpit.
“They’ll put the pilots into the simulator, they’ll put them on a refresher ground school, and make sure that they are competent when they get back up in the air,” CTV News aviation analyst Phyl Durdey told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on March 26.
Part of the challenge for pilots, he said, is retaining their technical skills.
“It’s the complexity of the systems, and keeping up on the systems,” he said. “Some pilots haven’t flown since April.”
“When you’re flying the newer-generation aircraft, it’s more computer programming and computer management than it is the hands and feet.”
Durdey said that with so many pilots laid off, some haven’t had access to simulators, and therefore don’t have the flight hours needed to be fit to fly.
“They’re going to have to basically put them through a refresher course to hone their skills again,” said Durdey.
“If they haven’t flown the required amount of hours in the last month or 90 days, they have to go back and do a complete refresher course.”
Air Canada says they’ve been able to keep most of their pilots current.
“Throughout the pandemic, Air Canada has continued to operate and the vast majority of our pilots has been flying regularly maintaining their competency. Additionally, we have training facilities with full flight simulators where pilots can regularly train and upgrade their skills,” Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said in a statement to CTVNews.ca on March 26.
“Our pilots who are furloughed will receive a full aircraft course when they return to the airline,” he added.
Air Canada is set to resume routes to certain sun destinations in May and routes in Atlantic Canada in June.
WestJet is also set to add flights in Western Canada in anticipation of increased demand this summer. A spokesperson with WestJet told CTVNews.ca that their active pilots have been able to make enough flights to maintain currency on their qualifications.
“Flying and currency is always tracked and we utilize our flight simulators as required to ensure skills remain sharp. Additionally, pilots see a recurrent simulator training session, no less than once every six months to ensure proficiency is maintained and validated,” Morgan Bell said in an email on March 26.
When pilots become inactive due to furlough or layoffs, they must go through a more rigorous training program before resuming flight, according to the company.
“When a pilot is no longer considered active, it is a more extensive process similar to hiring and they do undergo additional ground, simulator and line training based on their inactivity timeline,” she added.
All pilots in Canada must meet qualifications set out by Transport Canada.
According to Transport Canada, every six months pilots must complete a minimum of five takeoffs and landings in the aircraft they typically carry passengers, and if they fly at night they must complete a minimum of five landings and takeoffs at night.
Every two years they have to complete a flight review with an instructor, take a Transport Canada seminar on aviation safety, participate in a Transport Canada approved training seminar, and pass a written exam for their licence.
“Airlines will have to train their pilots according to the Canadian Aviation Regulations requirements,” a spokesperson for Transport Canada told CTVNews.ca in an email.
As a result of the pandemic, Air Canada and WestJet have cut thousands of jobs. While their current roster of pilots may remain current, it could take weeks of training to bring furloughed pilots back up to speed.
But Canadians shouldn’t worry when they step foot on a plane again, there are systems in place to make sure things don’t go amiss.
“They’ve got checks and balances,” Durdey said.
And with two people in the cockpit, the room for error is smaller, with the pilots keeping each other in check, he said.
“They sit down, they check each other, they keep an eye on each other.”