No shortage of wannabe pilots – just of money to train them

Image Credit: ADOBE STOCK

KELOWNA - Even though it costs more than $100,000 to get a commercial pilot’s licence, there are waiting lists to get into flight schools.

But, with rapidly rising costs, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to attract instructors, says Marc Vanderaegen, Flight School Director for the Southern Interior Flight Centre. And he’s worried it will become too expensive for students to choose flying as a career.

“What we’re facing with the aviation industry is no different, shortage-wise, than it is for a lot of other industries out there,” he told “The big difference is that aviation has become extremely expensive for the students and things like student loans haven’t changed in 30 years, especially in British Columbia.”

It takes five 17-week semesters (which includes getting a private pilot licence first) to get a commercial pilot’s licence at a cost of about $23,500 per semester.

“And that’s just the current costs,” Vanderaegen said. “That price is going to go up in September.

With equipment purchases tied to the U.S. dollar and a 33 per cent increase in maintenance costs in the last 18 months, the cost of flying just keeps going up.

But the B.C. student loan program only provides $5,400 per semester, leaving a shortfall of more than $90,000.

That means coming up with the rest of the money through other savings, family or loans.

That earns a licence to fly as a captain on smaller planes or as co-pilot with airlines such as Jazz or Encore with starting wages of $35,000 to $45,000 a year. While experienced pilots make much more money, starting wages are low to keep flight costs down.

While there is no current shortage of people wanting to learn to fly, the bottleneck comes on the flight instructor side of things.

Vanderaegen likes to have a mix of experienced pilots and new graduates who bring knowledge of their recent training and exams.

But, in order to keep course costs down, he can’t afford to pay high enough starting salaries to attract instructors. If he pays instructors more, students will have to pay more.

It takes an extra three months to be trained as an instructor and another $10,000. The flight centre is willing to forgive that extra cost if the instructor stays one year.

There are other problems with the current Canadian training system that are adding to the cost, he said.

That includes the inability to use new technology like flight simulators because it’s hard to get them approved in Canada. That could cut down on the in-air time, which is the major expense of the program.

There are also cheaper training planes being used in the U.S. that have more advanced technology than some that are used in Canada but those have not been approved for use here.

To help with these concerns, Kelowna-Lake Country MP Stephen Fuhr has made 13 recommendations to the federal government as chair of the the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.

That reports says 7,000 to 10,000 new pilots will be needed in Canada within the next six years, leaving a shortfall of about 3,000 under the current system.

Flight schools need help in buying equipment, along with hiring and retaining instructors and things like the Canada Student Loan program needs to be revamped. That’s particularly important, Vanderaegen noted, because flying is federally regulated. Right now, most students don’t qualify for the federal program due, in part, to the fact that in-air hours are not counted as part of their school time.

And the B.C. government also needs to be involved, he said, since a student from Alberta qualifies for almost double the provincial student loan amount as in B.C.

Fuhr’s report has gone to government but there is no word on when, or if, any of the recommendations will be adopted.

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