The heads of some of Canada’s most important aviation manufacturers have a word of advice to offer politicians now in the midst of a federal election campaign: don’t take aviation for granted.
The advice was offered during panel discussions with politicians in attendance at last month at the Aerospace, Defence, and Security Expo in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
“We need a national aerospace industrial strategy,” said Kevin Lemke, Chief Operating Officer of Cascade Aerospace in Abbotsford. “There’s more money going to be spent on future fighter, future training, remote pilot aerospace systems etc over the next few years than anywhere else.
“This is a chance to direct these things in a well thought out, strategic way to really help Canada regain, and move up the food chain in terms of nations with strong aerospace capability.”
The Aerospace Industries Association of Canada has published a report called Vision 2025, expressing alarm that the country’s aerospace industry is falling behind both traditional and new competitors. The group is calling on the federal government to partner with private companies in a number of key areas, such as space exploration, defence procurement, and support for the industry’s skilled workers. AIAC also wants Transport Canada to make sure it can maintain Canada’s internationally recognized status for aircraft certification and regulation, which has come under threat as skilled workers retire.
“I think there’s a lot of good things going on,” said Helmut Neuper, the President and Chief Executive Officer of MTU Canada, part of the world’s largest independent commercial engine maintenance service provider. “Canada is leading in the world in simulator technology and things like that. But there is no country in the world where aviation just happens without active support from the government.”
Neuper also took a shot at past government policies that have tended to favour manufacturers in Ontario and Quebec, where Canada’s main aircraft plants – Longview in Toronto and Airbus in the Montreal area – are situated.
“Don’t forget about Western Canada,” he said. “Especially on the MRO side, there’s a lot ot be said about being right at the Pacific Coast with the air traffic growing tremendously in Southeast Asia. Especially for the service industry, this is a good spot to be.”
“We need to have that ingrained recognition of aerospace as an economic driver, not as a source of funds for the general coffers,” said Tracy Medve, President of KF Aerospace, a Kelowna-based maintenance and repair company with facilities across Canada.
KF performs heavy maintenance on more than 150 aircraft annually, and is building a $30-million expansion at its Hamilton operation. Medve said many of her customers have shopped around the world for aircraft services, but come back and are willing to pay more for quality service.
“We’re good at doing this stuff,” she said. “But there has to be that recognition that we’re here as part of the solution, not as part of the problems. And we don’t have our hands out, we’re just asking for a smoother path to do what we’re already good at.”
The AIAC estimates the aerospace industry accounts for 215,000 jobs across the country, but that 50,000 new employees will be needed to replace retiring workers in the next five to seven years. And that’s where governments could help, encouraging students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Cascade Aerospace’s Kevin Lemke offered up a dire picture of what could happen if Ottawa doesn’t step up with more support for the industry.
“I’m just Chief Operating Officer of a little 500-person company that’s operating here,” said Lemke. “Last year, I was personally contacted by over 20 U.S. states and seven international countries wanting to speak with me, to tell me all the incentives they were going to offer me to move my business to their jurisdiction.”
He said countries as diverse as Bangladesh and the United Kingdom are keen to attract aviation-related companies.
“So if you want to talk about, ‘is our government competing with other governments,’ I’d suggest the answer right now is no.”