Public Values

Deaths of pilots, passengers merits no workplace investigation under airline safety regulatory freefall

Bill C-7 and why the public should be aware.

Kirsten Stevens and her children following the death of her husbandby Kirsten Stevens

After my husband drowned following a survivable floatplane accident in the spring of 2005, leaving me alone to care for our newborn baby and two young children, I needed answers in order to find peace and move on.

More than three years later, there are still no answers. Although he and the four other men on board that day were working, there has been no accident report and no occupational health and safety investigation. There have been no recommendations aimed at preventing similarly caused accidents and fatalities. There has been no report from the coroner. There has been no closure. (See: www.questforjustice.ca for more information.)

Dissatisfied by the investigations and communication, as well as obfuscation of information received from government officials, I began a quest to learn about the aviation industry in order to find out how this could have happened and what needed to change so that it could never happen again.

What I have learned frightens me.

Transport Canada would have us believe that we have one of the "safest aviation systems in the world". Of course, that's what the United States of America says too, and we all know what just happened there when FAA officials blew the whistle and hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded due to safety concerns. The statistics also do not bear this out (see attachment6 "Canadian Aviation Accident Statistics and Analysis"). While airlines operations continue to appear relatively safe due to the availability of extensive technologies and lobby groups such as unions and professional associations, the same cannot be said for the rest of the industry.

The majority of air traffic in Canada is carried out by industry classes such as air taxi, aerial work, medical evacuation, flight training, cargo flights, private flights, etc. Given the size and diverse nature of both weather and terrain in this country, as well as the fact that most pilots build hours either instructing (with little or no "real world" experience) or working "the bush" — it is also the sector most "at risk". The remote locations of many of these operations further complicate the ability to perform regulatory oversight. These types of operations often transport workers from other industries, as well as tourists, thereby increasing the danger to the Canadian public.

Bill C-7, an Act to Amend the Aeronautics Act has been making its way through Parliament (first introduced as Bill C-62, then as Bill C-6, and now as Bill C-7) since 2005, and may soon be up for review by the Standing Senate Committee on Transportation and Communication. While the Bill has met with a great deal of criticism during House Committee meetings and in the House of Commons, Transport Canada has been implementing the critical component, "Safety Management Systems" (SMS) for several years, and without Parliamentary approval.

SMS is a system by which a company or operator is responsible for reporting and managing safety issues. While in essence, SMS is a good thing, for it to work it is critical that regulatory oversight is constant and effective, or there is the potential for disaster.

Clearly, a company or operator is not going to implicate itself in any wrong-doing. It is therefore necessary that the regulator (Transport Canada) is consistent in its inspection and enforcement obligations, listening and responding to complaints from pilots and others, and in following recommendations made by the Transportation Safety Board.

Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence that Transport Canada is neglecting these responsibilities, at the cost of human lives. A clear indicator is the recent criminal prosecution and verdict of guilt for the negligence of a pilot in a fatal accident, while the operator has not been held accountable.

SMS has already been introduced to the Rail sector, apparently with the same lack of regulatory oversight, and with dire consequences, if one looks into the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into Rail Safety.

The Auditor General recently released a report on Transport's oversight of air safety. The findings make it clear that Transport has not been effective in its risk management of SMS implementation. Other critics of Transport Canada oversight and the relationship to SMS include Justice Virgil Moshansky, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Teamsters Canada, the Canada Safety Council and the Canadian Federal Pilots Association (representing the Transport Canada Civil Aviation inspectorate). The Canadian Association of Journalists nominated Transport Canada for its Secrecy Award the second year running, charging that the Bill will cause "a veil of secrecy (to) fall over all information reported by airlines about performance, safety violations, aviation safety problems and their resolution. None of this information will be available through the Access to Information Act even as de-personalized data.".

Transport Canada has been found civilly liable for inadequate oversight of aviation operations and has quietly settled on a number of occasions. They have most recently been named as a defendant in a Statement of Claim filed by Air France in the Ontario Supreme Court of Justice. In the opinion of many, SMS is being used for the purpose of further reducing costs and deflecting liability from the regulator, rather than improving the safety of our skies.

Justice Moshansky and many other industry experts continue to contend that a major review of the state of aviation safety in Canada and the impact of Bill C-7 should be performed by a Commission of Inquiry.

I happen to agree. If you value your safety and the safety of your loved ones, so should you.

Links and sources
  Online petition for workplace standards investigation

Posted: June 10, 2008

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