Bearskin Pilots
A Bearskin Metroliner on the runway in Dryden, Ont.

For the past year, Bearskin has been a constant in almost every area, including fleet size and routes. But this is not the case with pilot retention, which has taken a new face.

“Our airline hasn’t seen this amount of pilot turnover since the mid-90s. In 2016, Bearskin had an attrition rate of just above 50 percent—80 percent of that attrition being first officers,” said Capt. Dan Parnham, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman.

Attrition is not new to Bearskin—the airline used to see 80 percent of its attrition come from the ranks of captains, who were leaving for jobs at regional and mainline carriers. However, two contracts ago, the company and pilot group started to address the serious issue of captain retention by ensuring that a pilot at Bearskin could see the airline as a career and not just a career path. Rather than losing four out of five captains to other airlines, Bearskin now loses one out of five, and generally only those captains at the lower end of the seniority list.

“We’ve built a place where a pilot can build a life, raise a family, and have a very good standard of living,” noted Parnham. “Moving to the bottom of the seniority list at another airline and taking a significant pay cut just aren’t worth it for the majority of our captains.”

Bearskin is based in Thunder Bay, Ont., where the cost of living is significantly lower than that of most other regional and mainline carriers’ domiciles. Moving from Thunder Bay to Toronto, one could expect the cost of rent and housing to be as much as 70 percent higher. Thunder Bay also boasts commute times of 15 minutes or less from just about anywhere in the city.

For first officers, there has never been a better time in the last three decades to be quickly hired by one of Canada’s regional, large charter, or mainline carriers. Pilots coming into Bearskin are typically in their early to mid-20s and are predominantly former flight instructors with about 1,000 hours of flight time. The majority of new-hire first officers also come from southern Ontario. According to Parnham, while Bearskin can be a good starting point, the lure of bigger, more modern airplanes; fast upgrades; lucrative career paths; and simply being back in the area where one is from are too hard for most to pass up. With aggressive hiring at regionals and mainlines, it’s now easier for a young pilot to move to another airline in less time than in years past.

“In 2015, the Bearskin seniority list saw almost a 100 percent turnover of its first officers,” Parham said. “They left to fly bigger planes, at bigger airlines, making more money, and more often than not living in their home cities. We had five captains leave in 2015, and all were captains for five years or less.”

The crunch for new pilots is felt at many airlines, especially at those that have aircraft with 19 or fewer seats that are feeding larger operators. Parnham noted that it’s estimated that this year the Canadian airline industry will need between two and three times the number of pilots who currently graduate from flight schools annually just to fill the void at regional and mainline carriers—so there hasn’t been a better time in recent history to become a pilot for a Canadian airline.

“Attrition is a common problem for all airlines with aircraft with fewer than 19 seats,” acknowledged Parnham. “While Bearskin has been able to meet the hiring demands of the current attrition rates, I believe we will see the quantity and experience level of prospective new hires drop significantly, if the hiring predictions of the industry are proven correct.”