Flying Winnipeg to Saskatoon requires a stopover in Toronto

Saskatchewan and Manitoba are disproportionately impacted by Canada’s pilot shortage. It could get worse.

This week we’re going to talk about air travel on the Prairies. As you might have personally experienced, Christmas air travel for many was a disaster, especially if you lived in Saskatchewan. Sunwing sold flights departing from the province when it didn’t have the pilots to fly the planes.

But before we get to that, one reader Ken Coates shared a story about how a cancelled flight led to his friend being at the right place at the right time when his neighbour needed rescue.

Frustrated by the delays and lost Christmas opportunities, Stephen could not settle down. With heavy snow falling in the early afternoon, he opted to blow off some steam and get a head start on the day’s shovelling. As he often did, he cleared the sideway and walkway to his house, his neighbour John’s and, when this was done, his neighbour on the other side, the 81-year-old aunt Florence.

It was here when the Gods of Christmas intervened. As Stephen shovelled toward the back entrance, he heard a dog barking behind Florence’s house.

You can read Ken’s whole story here.

Canada is facing a significant pilot shortage.

Local, independent, in-depth.

Our Prairie stories.

Pre-pandemic, Transport Canada issued roughly 1,100 pilot licences per year

During the pandemic, this number dropped.

  • Less than 500 licences were awarded in 2020
  • Less than 300 licences were awarded in 2021 
  • And in 2022, 238 pilot licences were awarded.

Canada currently is short about 1,500 pilots, and because big airlines like Air Canada and West Jet can pay more, they can poach pilots from small regional carriers, charter and cargo flights, air ambulances and flight schools. 

In northern or remote parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where local industry relies on small regional carriers, and air ambulances can mean the difference between life and death, the pilot shortage may eventually become a real problem.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba are disproportionately impacted by the pilot shortage, especially lately. This winter, Sunwing essentially cancelled all its flights departing from Reginahalf its flights from Saskatoon, and some from Winnipeg.

Rural travel headaches

If you live in a city with an airport, a cancelled flight is not as problematic as when you are coming in from a rural community for a flight. 

When I lived up north near Pierceland, Saskatchewan, the closest airport was Edmonton, which was about 300 km away. Saskatoon is 381 km. Catching a winter flight meant driving down the day before, sometimes through abysmal winter weather on undivided highways, and staying in a hotel. To get to the airport the next day to find out the flight is cancelled would be an expensive inconvenience. 

Foreign pilots

Sunwing tried to mitigate its problems by bringing in more than 65 temporary foreign pilots before Christmas, but the union stopped this.

Meanwhile, some Canadian pilots are eyeing better financial opportunities south of the border as  U.S. airlines look to hire foreign pilots to fill their shortages. American unions are fighting this, but if it becomes easier for Canadian pilots to work in the U.S. that would create more vacancies up here. 

Training Canadian pilots expensive

When it comes to training more Canadian pilots, courses and getting the necessary flight hours is prohibitively expensive for many. For instance, the cost of the two-year commercial pilot program at Saskatchewan Polytechnic is more than $75,000, which includes flight time and costs related to qualifying for a private pilot’s licence, but not living expenses. (Students in Saskatchewan can only apply for a maximum of $6,000 in government assistance).

Air Canada quits Saskatchewan

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Earlier this year, Air Canada cancelled flights between Saskatchewan and Calgary so they could focus on their main hubs in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto.

The Air Canada disruption resulted in at least one conference in Saskatoon being cancelled, according to the Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce.

WestJet has since picked up the slack.

However, some accuse WestJet and Air Canada of being anti-competitive, as Air Canada is currently focusing on Eastern Canada, while WestJet focuses on the West.

Provincial government funds for airlines?

Some say the government should do more, like subsidize flights to Saskatchewan, a location that might not ever be profitable for airlines. 

Manitoba has provided $4.8 million to Winnipeg Airports Authority (WAA) to improve direct flight connectivity from Winnipeg to major international markets, like Los Angeles, which has benefited the Manitoba film industry.

WAA is looking for opportunities to create more direct flights. At the same time, those from Saskatchewan may find themselves driving to Winnipeg to catch flights

The Saskatchewan government says airline problems need to be addressed by Ottawa, as the federal government regulates the national airline industry and bought $500 million of Air Canada stock, or roughly 21.6 million shares, as part of a COVID assistance package.

It’s estimated that the feds now own 6.4 per cent of Air Canada and have the right to buy 14 million more shares. It’s the first time the feds have had voting rights in the company since it went fully private in 1989.

Let’s dig deeper into this story.

I’m going to write a story or stories that look a little deeper at air travel on the Prairies.

In a reader survey I did, one reader said it would be nice to know what stories I am working on in advance as she or other readers might be able to comment or provide information on a topic based on their own experiences, or know someone who can speak to the issue. 

So let me know if you’ve travelled post-Christmas, and if you had any issues. Have you been impacted by the Sunwing or Air Canada flight cancellations? Or, if you work in an industry that relies on regional air travel to take you up north, how have you found the experience? Have you ever needed an air ambulance?

Are you or anyone you know working on becoming an airline pilot, or maybe you know someone who has given up on the dream because of certain obstacles? Do you know a pilot looking to transition to a new job at an airline or who is leaving the industry?

Mailbag – chronic wasting disease

Sandy wrote:

As a person who is familiar with the southwest of Saskatchewan, there is a lot of poached deer in people’s deep freeze. Heads are not turned in they are burned. Just so hard to patrol that area is vast, and you can get lost by the sand hills. 

Poaching is a problem, and poachers could inadvertently spread disease or eat diseased meat, which experts advise one doesn’t do as a precaution. 

Gary wrote:

My question with CWD is the authorities slaughtered 50 deer along border, according to article, how many had CWD? My guess would be none of them.

7 in Manitoba, again according to article, out of how many? Percentage-wise is it enough to get worried about? Maybe it is natural, always been there, nature’s natural control. Man cannot fix everything.

Scientists opt to cull animal populations as a way of preventing the spread. If the herd is thinned, the disease can’t spread as easily. In this case, along the Manitoba and Saskatchewan border, they tested the deer they killed. Of all the deer tested to date, there are only seven cases. 

When chronic wasting disease first entered Saskatchewan, a heard of elk was destroyed.

Some readers also wondered why the disease couldn’t spread and wipe out the deer in places where their high numbers make them a nuisance. 

Chronic wasting disease is a slow killer, so it wouldn’t reduce the population quickly. It can take several years for a deer to die from it, and, in the meantime, scientists worry it would infect other species, like moose and elk, or jump the species barrier into humans.

Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed

  1. Manitoba is making it easier to access sleep testing
  2. Métis cards will soon be accepted as ID for liquor, cannabis, gaming in Manitoba 
  3. Documentary tells story of Churchill’s polar bears from unique perspective
  4. Candice Bergen announces resignation: ‘Not really one for long goodbyes
  5. Winnipeg coach among 2023 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductees

Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed

  1. How a social media group dubbed Mom Jeans is helping people fight inflation
  2. Video rental store in small Sask. town still going because ‘I’m stubborn,’ says owner
  3. Southeast Sask. spotlights heritage preservation, thriving Filipino community
  4. Regina hospital patient died while waiting for admission, paramedic logs reveal
  5. Love story a perfect fit for Tournament of Hearts

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The Flatlander takes a closer look at the stories that unite us, and make us unique, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.


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