A severe pilot shortage is forcing Northwestern Air Lease to cut flights just as travel was set to resume after more than two years of pandemic-related restrictions.

James Heidema, chief operating officer of the Fort-Smith based airline, described it as the worst shortage in recent memory.

“We’ve seen this before but never to this extent,” he said. “There has always been either an abundance of pilots or a shortage of pilots. I’ve been with the company eight years and certainly we’ve seen that roller coaster but we’ve never gone as deep as we’re going this time.”

NWAL has had to cut back flights in July and August and is asking passengers to book as early as possible to help ensure they get seats.

The airline usually offers about 21 flights a week to several destinations including Fort Smith, Edmonton, High Level and Yellowknife but is now operating only about half that, “and that’s really unfortunate because people are travelling again now and we can’t take advantage of that,” said Heidema.

There is a global shortage of qualified pilots, he said, prompting larger airlines to lure them away from smaller operations with promises of higher pay.

“The big guys are all scrambling. It’s a buyer’s market and the pilots are being seduced away with pretty extravagant offers.”

The demand for pilots is so acute that some airlines are dropping requirements and cutting training hours to get more pilots flying sooner, which Heidema calls a “scary thing.”

“Some airlines used to bring in pilots into their operation with 750 hours or 1500 hours,” he said. “Now some have lowered them down to 250 hours, which is, from our perspective, not the best decision.”

“There’s such a thirst,” he continued. “People want to travel around because Covid is over from most people’s perspective and they want to get out of dodge and fly.”

Northern airlines hold a special appeal for some pilots, he said, which can help with recruitment.

In the North they can earn a good income while honing their skills at a company where flying is still done without the benefit of “gate to gate autopilot.”

“That’s very attractive to pilots,” said Heidema. “To keep their hands on the throttle, have control of the situation and they can get really good experience.”

However, “in this market today, a lot of airlines are just writing an open cheque to get them,” he continued. “We can’t compete against that.”

Especially problematic has been the shortage of captains, he said, two of whom recently left NWAL for jobs with airlines in the south.

The company has found replacements but it will take several months for them to be trained, he said.

“We’ll come out of it. We’ll just have to weather it until we can get these guys back up to speed again and hope we don’t lose anybody else,” said Heidema. “The company is well-funded and well-organized and we’ll get through it but I feel badly for the customers. Their choices become even more limited.”

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  1. Pay more, honour promises made. Don’t hire from outside for huge rates/better schedule when a comparable person in the company exists for less.

  2. Pay more.

    It’s that simple.
    For years Canadian company’s have taken advantage. Times have changed.

    No one chooses to live in Ft.Crap or Dirty Lake. They do it to move on to better things; that’s a step they can skip now.