Air safety flies under the radar

June 10, 2009

On February 28, 2005 a small float plane crashed near Campbell River , BC . All on board died – the pilot and four forest workers. A botched rescue and investigation angered Kirsten Stevens, the widow of one of the victims. She was shocked to learn in late 2006 that the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) had classified the crash as a “5”, its lowest priority. “Five men died. How could it be at the bottom of the barrel?”

The TSB is supposed to conduct independent investigations to identify safety deficiencies, and make recommendations to eliminate or reduce those deficiencies.

In 2003, Transport Canada handed over aviation safety rule-setting to the Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA). In effect this allowed an industry trade association and lobby group to oversee the safety of its own members’ aircraft. Bureaucrats made the change without parliamentary approval. Then, in March 2006, they cancelled the National Audit Program, which had been one of the most effective tools in assuring safety.

All of this was done as part of a move to implement Safety Management Systems (SMS) for the larger airlines. However, government inspections and audits were also cut for the smaller operators, who were not required to have SMS. Most of Canada ’s aviation industry falls into the latter category – air taxis, bush planes, aircraft used to transport workers to remote sites.

To this day, Parliament has not approved any of these cuts or the move to SMS.

In 2007, Transport Canada reviewed the changes it had made in giving responsibility for safety oversight to the CBAA. The review – which a media source was only able to obtain under the Access to Information Act – found the changes had created a system plagued with troubling holes. No procedures were in place to cancel or suspend a private operator’s certificate when problems are found, and there was no structured oversight of private operators. Nor was anyone collecting or analysing safety data to ensure the program’s effectiveness. Transport Canada ‘s own inspectors questioned whether operators were being punished when safety violations were uncovered and whether there was any oversight at all.

In her May 2008 report, Canada ’s Auditor General Sheila Fraser found serious problems in government oversight of air transportation safety. Transport Canada had not assessed the risks in its transition to SMS, the appropriate level of safety oversight, how many aviation inspectors are required, or what skills they must have.

The Canada Safety Council has longstanding concerns about industry self-regulation under the guise of SMS. In April 2007, the safety council expressed these concerns to the House of Commons standing committee looking at amendments to the Aeronautics Safety Act that would enable the aviation industry to implement SMS. The proposed legislation included secrecy provisions that could allow the industry to hide critical safety information from the public. However, whistleblower protection was conspicuous by its absence. The bill died when the election was called in October 2008, but is expected to be re-introduced.

“The railway industry has had SMS since 1999,” says Canada Safety Council president Jack Smith. “Derailments have gone up, and lives have been lost. That should make people question using the same approach for air transport.”

The model of helicopter that crashed off the coast of Newfoundland on March 12, killing 17 people, had earlier failed a safety test over its ability to fly with zero oil pressure in the engine. The Canada Safety Council has asked why a helicopter that had failed such a vital safety test was allowed to be sold and to operate in Canada .

On April 23 in the House of Commons, an opposition member raised the issue of inadequate oversight in the aviation industry. The Minister of State for Transport denied there was a problem, and even suggested the member apologize for his question.

Smith wonders if it is possible the politicians just don’t know. The information they receive comes from the same bureaucrats who handed responsibility for safety over to the industry and cut out audits without consulting Parliament.

On the other hand, pilots and airline workers are concerned about Transport Canada ’s lack of oversight. They stand to lose the most if something beyond their control goes wrong. Along with Kirsten Stevens and others who have lost loved ones, organizations representing industry employees have banded together to launch www.safeskies.ca, a website that exposes what is happening behind the scenes with aviation safety in Canada .

– 30 – h3. For more information, please contact:

Emile Therien
Past President, Canada Safety Council
(613) 737-4965

Valerie Powell
Communications/Media Coordinator
Canada Safety Council
(613) 739-1535 ext. 228