Two years after an Air Canada flight leaving Toronto undershot the runway in Halifax, injuring two dozen people and resulting in a class-action lawsuit, the Canadian Federal Pilots Association is warning that a major aviation accident in Canada is likely on the horizon due to cuts in aviation safety oversight.
According to new data revealed in an Abacus Data study of 243 Transport Canada frontline aviation inspectors, 81 per cent are predicting a major aviation accident in the near future due to the state of aviation safety in Canada.
Respondents of the survey were “veteran aviators” with an average of 28 years of pilot experience and 11 years working as an inspector.
The survey found most (67 per cent) of pilot inspectors haven’t flown an actual aircraft in at least a year, and many have flown actual aircraft so infrequently that their licences have become or will soon become invalid.
Moreover, 70 per cent of respondents reported that they sometimes or frequently were assigned tasks they had not been trained to do and only 55 per cent had completed all mandatory training.
“We have inspectors assigned to oversee helicopter companies who would not know how to fly a helicopter if their life depended on it,” said Capt. Greg McConnell, national chair of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, which commissioned the survey.
In addition to dwindling skills and qualifications of its inspectorate, the report found that an increasing reliance on what’s called Safety Management System (SMS), which transfers response of setting acceptable levels of risk and monitoring safety performance to the airlines themselves, has left inspectors uncomfortable.
Transport Canada’s website says these management systems are to provide additional rigour to government’s current oversight program of inspections and audits, but McConnell told the Chronicle Herald that cuts to Transport Canada has severely reduced that federal oversight.
He said annual inspections have been replaced by SMS reviews that can happen as infrequently as every five years. And with strapped resources, inspectors can’t even keep up with these lower levels — according to internal documents obtained by the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, Transport Canada has completed only 50 per cent of its planned SMS assessments in 2016-17.
In addition, the heavy administrative burden associated with SMS has left inspectors office bound auditing companies’ paperwork, and conducting actual SMS surveillance of airlines less frequently than ever before. McConnell said this means operators can only see on paper if airlines are operating safely.
This is at odds with the International Civil Aviation Organization, which requires countries like Canada to “maintain a program of oversight that includes traditional audits, inspections and enforcement” in conjunction with SMS.
McConnell said the Transportation Safety Board has raised similar concerns about how Canada runs SMS in the past.
“Flying in Canada has become more risky than any time in the last 15 years,” McConnell said.
Inspectors are also concerned with Transport Canada’s decision to remove a number of classes of aircraft like business aircraft — which include the type of plane former Alberta Premier Jim Prentice was on when it crashed in October last year, killing him and four others — and aircraft doing aerial work (such as water bombers), as well as urban heliports and aircraft parts suppliers, from planned surveillance.
McConnell said the government nixed planned surveillance for these areas over the last four years but made it official quietly with an internal process bulletin in August.
In addition, major urban airports like the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, and soon all other airports, are no longer subject to full safety assessments — the Transport Canada inspection covers only one part of an airport’s safety plan — and McConnell said the government is mulling over removing air taxi class aircraft from planned surveillance.
With the the House of Commons transport committee beginning a study of aviation safety this week, McConnell said he’s hoping members will play close attention to the report and work to beef up regulations before a serious accident occurs.
“The opinions of this expert group show that Transport Canada’s aviation safety oversight has gone terribly wrong,” McConnell said.
Transport Canada did not make someone available for an interview or provide comment on the report by deadline.