Air Traffic Controller Shortage Affecting Toronto Airspace

An air traffic controller shortage in Toronto is starting to negatively effect general aviation across the city.

Controlling Canada’s Airspace

NavCanada is Canada’s non-profit organization that is responsible for managing traffic over the world’s second largest country. In addition they also manage traffic over the Atlantic Ocean as far east as Reykjavík, Iceland.

NavCanada Flight Information Regions (Source)

They do this with over 4,000 employees scattered across the country. Toronto’s airspace includes 4 airports (Downsview and Buttonville airports have recently closed):

  • CYYZ Toronto/Pearson Airport
  • CYTZ Toronto/Billy Bishop Airport
  • CNC3 Toronto/Brampton-Caledon Airport
  • CZBA Toronto/Burlington Executive Airport
Visual Navigation Chart for YYZ

Warning Signs

NavCanada started restricting VFR aircraft movements around Toronto as late as last summer. Usually just on summer long weekends. They’ve either notified pilots that they are not allowed to do practice approaches at certain airports, or not allowed VFR flight following.

July 28, 2023 NOTAM notifying pilots that VFR traffic and IFR students practicing approaches are not allowed.

As recent as last fall they have been on a hiring blitz. Trying to hire as many controllers as they could. Including a marketing campaign on twitter.

This spring they have emailed all previous candidates who’ve applied but didn’t make it through the three rounds of testing, letting them know that the re-application window has been shortened.

E-Mail Sent to Applicants

Just Getting Worse

On Sunday, May 12, 2024 a NOTAM was issued to pilots letting them know that the ATC tower at Toronto Billy Bishop Airport (CYTZ) would be closed for 30 min at 10am and 10:30pm (an hour total). This is an airport that handles international flights to and from the USA and other destinations. In addition it services two of Canda’s major airlines: Air Canada Jazz and Porter.

NOTAM issued to pilots on May 12, 2024.

This usually happens when they don’t have enough controllers to cover a shift. Because managing airplanes is a high intensity job. Controllers in Canada have a mandated break every 2 hours in a busy environment and every 4 hours in low traffic environments.

The Final Straw

On May 16, 2024 NavCanada issued a memo to the airport tenants about a new policy restricting sightseeing flights and other flying activities over the city.

Memo sent to tenants at Billy Bishop Airport (CYTZ)

Today, the mentioned NOTAM was published to notify pilots that this new policy will take effect between 6:30am and 11:00pm May 23, 2024 to August 21, 2024.

NOTAM Restricting sightseeing flights over the city.

What This Means For Pilots

Essentially this new policy will restrict training flights that use the airport for practicing landings and take-offs whether you are VFR or IFR to the schools located on the island airport only.

Sightseeing flights will be restricted to the air operators on the island airport as well.

Aircraft transiting the airport’s control zone will have to do so at a higher altitude, fly further south over the lake, or farther north around Pearson’s (YYZ) control zone. This means that, potentially, the Toronto Terminal controllers located at Pearson Airport will be coordinating movements. These may also be further restricted due to “system capacity” (aka: not enough controllers).

The memo goes on to state that “Throughout the summer we will regularly re-evaluate the effectiveness and requirements for their continued use and adjust as required.”. So things can get worse before they get better.

NavCanada is also planning an “airspace review” due to the closure of both Downsview and Buttonville airports later this year. I’m hopeful that this will help with the current situation.

My Personal Experience

Over the past six months I’ve had been denied entry into the Class “C” terminal airspace around Toronto on three occasions at various different times of the day and week.

I’ve also been “booted out” of YTZs control zone during a sightseeing flight due to an incoming helicopter (from the tour company on the island) who wanted to do a sightseeing flight as well.

I empathize with the controllers. We work as a team and when one of us is hurting, we both do. I hope for a speedy recovery from this labour shortage without the need for further cuts to service.

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