IN THE NEWS ~ Self-checks by airlines compromise safety: pilots; Canada not meeting international standards, critics say

PUBLICATION: Edmonton Journal
DATE: 2009.04.23
EDITION: Final
SECTION: News
PAGE: A5
KEYWORDS: AIRLINES; AVIATION
DATELINE: OTTAWA
BYLINE: Sarah Schmidt
DUPLICATES: Regina Leader-Post, Ottawa Citizen,

Self-checks by airlines compromise safety: pilots; Canada not meeting international standards, critics say

Transport Canada pilots charged with inspecting the safety practices of airline operators said on Wednesday that Canada is no longer meeting international aviation standards because the government has downloaded responsibility for safety oversight to airlines.

Greg Holbrook, chairman of the federal pilots association, made the assessment when he got behind a call from the New Democrats for an investigation into Transport Canada's implementation of its new inspection model called Safety Management System (SMS).

An international first in civil aviation, SMS requires airlines to develop and oversee their own system of safety checks.

Holbrook said Transport Canada inspectors are no longer conducting traditional audits and inspections to make sure airlines are meeting all regulatory requirements, putting Canada offside with the requirements of the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to which Canada has agreed to conform as a contracting state.

"ICAO does not advocate the allowance of audits and inspections to be eliminated from the program and let operators check things themselves. They require clearly a balanced approach. It's quite clear to us that this is not happening here in Canada," said Holbrook.

Standing alongside NDP transport critic Dennis Bevington and international trade critic Peter Julian at a news conference on Parliament Hill, Holbrook said Transport Canada inspectors only "examine the air operator's safety management system to see if their system meets the requirements. It will not check for regulatory compliance."

This causes pilot inspectors "great concern" because they're only doing "one tenet of what is required by international aviation standards. Transport Canada is doing half the program and trying to present it as an additional layer, which it clearly is not," said Holbrook.

"We would request that the parliamentarians advocate a real sober second think of this whole initiative that seems to be proceeding at a juggernaut pace."

Transport Canada spokes-man Patrick Charette says it's "incorrect to say that safety management systems remove government oversight. Rather, they are a proactive tool to complement our inspection regime."

Charette said "SMS targets 'root causes' to prevent problems before they happen," and that it instils more accountability and a culture of safety throughout the industry. "The fact is inspections continue, as do our efforts to ensure the highest possible levels of safety for Canadians."

The transition to SMS, which has already resulted in the elimination of Transport Canada's national and regional auditing programs in civil aviation, has been fully implemented at Canada's large airlines. Its full transition across all sectors of civil aviation is expected to be complete in 2010.

After instituting SMS for rail transportation in 2001, the Liberal government at the time, under the stewardship of Transport Minister David Collenette, expanded the oversight system to civil aviation, to be phased in over time.

Bevington said now is the time to put on the brakes and investigate federal civil aviation practices.

"There's a disaster in the making, and I don't want to alarm people, the flying public, but all of us, whether we fly in air taxis, charter aircraft, or whether we deal with scheduled air carriers, want to ensure that the best possible systems are in place to protect our safety and the safety of our loved ones. This is not happening, and in fact, it's degrading every day," said the NDP's transportation critic.

The Canada Safety Council and Canadians for Accountability were also on hand to bolster the case for a public probe, along with Kirsten Stevens of Campbell River, B.C.; her husband was one of four loggers who died after their float plane crashed off Vancouver Island in 2005.

Ian Bron, spokesman for Canadians for Accountability and the former chief of aviation security regulations at Transport Canada, said SMS fails the "accountability test," pointing to transparency problems and concerns over whistleblower protection.

Bron said Transport Canada is not equipped to "lead a new and untested initiative in which it expects a completely different code of conduct from the airline industry. We believe if SMS does go forward, more lives will be lost to preventable accidents."