Bearskin Pilots
Capt. Kim Steingass, the Bearskin pilots’ temporary Master Executive Council chairman, flies over northern Ontario in December 2017.

Over the past few years, Bearskin Airlines on the surface remains unchanged. Fifty pilots fly the same 11 Fairchild Swearingen Metroliners. They fly the same routes to the same 12 destinations in northern Ontario and Manitoba. And the company remains based in Thunder Bay, Ont.—a city on the shores of Lake Superior.

Yet take a closer look at the pilot group, and you’ll see a dramatic change beneath the surface due to unprecedented attrition as pilots leave the airline for new opportunities. The pilots are a sea of new faces that recent trends suggest may not stay at Bearskin for very long.

This rapid attrition is a serious challenge to the airline and the pilot group. Capt. Dan Parnham, the pilots’ longtime Master Executive Council chairman, left in 2017 to take a job at another airline, leaving Capt. Robert Marsh as acting chairman until elections were held in December. At that time, Capt. Kim Steingass was elected temporary MEC chairman.

“We simply can’t keep captains at Bearskin. The opportunities at other airlines and other carriers are just too attractive for our pilots,” said Marsh. “Bearskin, like so many small carriers like us, simply can’t match other carriers in career progression and pay potential. Though we used to see it only with first officers, now even captains are leaving.”

In April 2017, Jazz Aviation added Bearskin to its pathways program, which provides a career path from smaller carriers to Jazz and then potentially on to Air Canada through the pilot mobility arrangement. Although this has given many pilots opportunities with the larger carriers, the sheer number of pilots needed at other carriers has added to the attrition rate at Bearskin and put a strain on recruitment efforts.

And this attrition isn’t expected to end any time soon. The lower wages that small airlines pay simply aren’t attracting pilots. Bearskin is particularly having difficulty hiring pilots as it’s based in a smaller community far away from the larger cities that are typically the hometowns of many of the pilots in flight schools.

“For young pilots, this is a wonderful chance to chase a dream of flying mainline or at one of the larger carriers,” said Marsh, “but this leaves carriers like Bearskin struggling to fill our cockpits. The lure of higher salaries and bigger cities is just far more attractive than working in the smaller communities that Bearskin serves.”

The attrition has also affected union activities. The MEC saw long-term officers and volunteers leave the airline, and the ranks of trained and experienced volunteers have been greatly diminished.

In late 2016, Bearskin announced a partnership with Perimeter Aviation. Both are owned by the same parent company, Exchange Income Corporation. This partnership includes a single ticketing and reservation system and may eventually include a merger of the two pilot groups. The approximately 150 Perimeter pilots, along with the airline’s flight attendants, are currently represented by Unifor Local 2002. In February 2017, the Perimeter pilots voted in their first collective agreement since joining Unifor in 2016.

“We simply don’t know what the future will hold for Bearskin pilots,” said Marsh. “It’s a difficult time for not only the pilots who’ve been here for a long time, but also for the new pilots brought on almost monthly. However, our company has been around since 1963. We’ve faced challenges before and have come out on the other side. We’re just waiting to see what the other side will look like.”