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We must innovate today, so that we can fly tomorrow

Dr. Suzanne Kearns, University of Waterloo *Originally published in The Hill Times, November 2020

COVID-19 continues to have devastating impacts on the air transport sector. Early in the pandemic, approximately 80 per cent of the world’s passenger airline fleet was grounded. On April 30th 2020, the German airline Lufthansa reported losses of close to 1€ million every hour. In a matter of months hundreds of thousands of airline employees worldwide were dismissed or furloughed. This article focuses on actions that can be taken by Canada to innovate during the pandemic.

Federal petition e-2867 has been brought forward to support Canada’s aviation sector, collecting more than 14 thousand signatures thus far. This petition requests federal support for aviation financial sustainability, a national aviation strategy to support pandemic recovery, and a sustainable border control approach.

A key theme in the petition is supporting the sustainability of the air transport sector. Sustainability is made up of three pillars: economic, environmental, and social. Without question, Canadian aviation’s most pressing need is financial support to help our operators survive this crisis. Managing environmental impacts is also a critically important challenge that needs to be addressed. However, this pandemic has highlighted the lack of social sustainability in aviation, which should be a principal element of our national recovery strategy. Social sustainability considers aspects of quality of life, equity, diversity, and connectedness, and has sadly received little attention relative to economic and environmental considerations in aviation. 

It’s challenging to grasp the far-reaching economic and social harm this pandemic has caused to aviation workers and the sector at large. One tragic example was reported on August 7th, when a Malaysian pilot committed suicide by jumping from a condominium window after learning that he was being furloughed.

Not seeing a future in aviation, many aviators are choosing to leave the industry altogether to pursue professions in other fields. In October of 2020, hundreds of Canadian aviation workers demonstrated outside Parliament Hill to ask the federal government to release a plan to restart aviation, bringing awareness to this critical issue. 

Setting aside the passion that aviators share for flight – there are various challenges inherent in aviation careers, including financial barriers to entry, low starting pay, challenging training and travel schedules, rigorous medical standards, and a lack of gender and ethnic diversity.

Before the pandemic, there was a looming shortage of aviation professionals in Canada and across the globe (pilots, maintenance engineers, and others). At that time, aircraft operators were increasingly reporting cancellations of flights due to a lack of available crew.

Although there is no shortage of aviation professionals during the pandemic, we must look to the future and recognize that recoveries follow downturns. We began 2020 with pre-existing aviation personnel shortages. When this is coupled with thousands of aviation professionals leaving the sector mid-pandemic, and youth being discouraged from joining the field, international aviation may face desperate personnel shortages in the years ahead without support. Countries that invest in innovation and cross-sector partnerships during this time are likely to emerge as leaders supporting the future, more sustainable, air transport sector.

Boeing’s recently updated ‘Pilot and Technician Forecast’ predicts between the years 2020 and 2039, 763,000 pilots, 739,000 maintenance technicians, and 903,000 cabin crew members will be needed internationally. After long-bouts in quarantine, travel and tourism demand will be high once society can return to a new normal.

A sustainable air transport sector will be a critical component of post-pandemic economic recovery. However, without a competent and ready workforce, this recovery will be difficult. Therefore, I propose that a national aviation strategy include the following elements with an explicit emphasis on the three pillars of economic, environmental, and social sustainability:

Research – to support the development of a competent and ready aviation workforce, we need to catalyze and grow science-based approaches to attract, educate, and retain the Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP). NGAP research is multidisciplinary, for example, using modern learning technologies (such as virtual-reality flight simulators), machine learning, and artificial intelligence to improve the efficiency of pilot training.

Air & Space Centre of Excellence – our national aviation strategy should include the development of a ‘think tank’ that brings together strategic cross-sector partnerships to address the challenges facing aviation and aerospace in Canada.

IATA estimates that in normal times, air transport supports 633,000 Canadian jobs and accounts for 3.2% of our GDP. Aviation has played a vital role in supporting Canadians during the pandemic, delivering life-saving medical goods and ensuring the global supply chain continues to deliver time-sensitive cargo. Air transport will also be critical in the timely distribution of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine. 

Without swift action, Canada’s air transport sector is unsustainable. Yet, this downturn presents an opportunity to analyze and resolve some of the critical challenges facing aviation pre-pandemic, innovate towards a better future, and support innovation in international aviation.

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