Press Conference

Aviation inspectors warn of impending disaster (link to press release)


Speaking Notes:

Good morning and thanks for coming out.

My name is Greg McConnell and I am the National Chair of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association.

The CFPA represents the licenced pilots who work at;
• Transport Canada as aviation inspectors,
• Transportation Safety Board as accident investigators, and
• Nav Canada, as system design and flight inspection pilots.

CFPA members are the most highly skilled among Transport Canada’s aviation inspectors, and for good reasons too.

We are required to hold and keep current a pilot licence and to exercise the perishable skills and knowledge required to keep that licence valid.

It’s a matter of public safety. Having aviation inspectors who do not know how to fly the aircraft that they are inspecting is like having a traffic cop who doesn’t know how to drive a car.

Yet, that is precisely the story emerging from the survey among CFPA members that Abacus has conducted.

Where once Transport Canada’s licenced pilots routinely flew aircraft in the course of completing their duties, Abacus found that many of the regulator’s licenced pilot inspectors have been grounded for years.


Budget cuts.

Transport Canada’s flying program budget has been reduced 60% from 2008/09 to 2016/17.

One quarter of Transport Canada’s pilot inspectors have not flown an aircraft to keep their licence current in at least 4 years. Some haven’t flown in more than 10 years. Many (41%) haven’t flown an actual aircraft in 1 to 3 years.

This means that at least one-quarter of the inspectors who are supposed to be pilots do not have valid licences.

Flying is a skill that atrophies.

Today the pace of technological change is as rapid in aviation as it is in any other walk of life.

If our inspectors don’t know how to fly the aircraft they are supposed to inspect, they simply will not know if the aircraft they are inspecting are safe and are being operated safely.

The survey also reveals that 70% of respondents report that they have not been trained for the tasks that are assigned to them.

Every day I hear stories from our members confirming this.

We have inspectors assigned to oversee helicopter companies who are not licensed to fly helicopters and couldn’t fly a helicopter if their life depended on it.

Abacus has found that aviation inspectors continue to have grave misgivings about Transport Canada’s Safety Management Systems which transfers responsibility for setting acceptable levels of risk and monitoring safety performance to the airlines themselves.

Gone are the days of unannounced in-person inspections or even regular inspections thanks to Transport Canada’s singular mission to audit companies’ SMS paperwork. For many operators, we simply cannot verify they are functioning safely because we really can’t look at their operations. We just don’t know.

SMS activities have largely replaced direct operational oversight, which has become the exception, not the rule.
In these circumstances, Abacus found a wide majority (81%) see Transport Canada’s SMS as a barrier that prevents them from identifying and fixing safety problems before they become accidents or incidents. Three-in-four (73%) believe SMS has exposed the public to elevated risk.

SMS is so labour intensive that airlines and other aviation companies are inspected less. Transport Canada once inspected licence holders once every year. This became once every three years. Now inspections are conducted just once every five years. Some aviation companies might never be inspected.

Even at this reduced rate Transport Canada’s inspectors can’t keep up. The regulator’s 2016-17 completion rate for planned SMS assessments – the most comprehensive review Transport Canada does – is just 50%.

To relieve the pressure, Transport Canada is eliminating entire sectors of aviation from its SMS surveillance program, without regard to safety and without advising Parliament, MPs or the Canadian public.
For example, after the plane carrying the former Premier of Alberta Jim Prentice crashed outside of Kelowna last summer, Transport Canada let it be known for the first time publicly that it had ceased safety oversight of that sector of aviation four years before in 2012.
Transport Canada has quietly eliminated even more sectors from its aviation safety surveillance program.

As of August 17th last year, Transport Canada cut urban heliports, like the one on top of St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto, from its oversight program. These facilities will no longer be subject to any scheduled safety compliance inspections by Transport Canada whatsoever.

Aircraft that do dangerous aerial work to maintain hydro facilities, fight fires, and the like, will no longer be subject to any safety checks by Transport Canada inspectors.

And, every certified airport in Canada, from Pearson to Vancouver International to St. John’s International, will no longer be subject to full safety assessments. Instead, a Transport Canada inspection will now only cover one small part of an airport’s safety plan and those checks could be done as infrequently as once every five years. By comparison, the US Federal Aviation Administration requires full inspections of airports every year.

Eight-in-ten (82%) Transport Canada aviation inspectors regard these cuts to the safety oversight program as decisions that will increase the risk of an accident, according to the Abacus study.

The most sobering finding in the study is the view among the vast majority of inspectors that a major aviation accident is just around the corner.

This is not a new finding. In April 2014, we asked CFPA members the same question, again through an Abacus survey, and the results mirrored today’s finding.

Less than 12 months later Air Canada 624 crashed on approach to Halifax International airport.

Only by the grace of some greater force did one hundred and thirty-eight people on board that flight walk away from it. We should not be relying on dumb luck or divine intervention to ensure aviation in safety in Canada. Yet, that is exactly what is happening today as regulatory oversight is dismantled piece by piece.

Time and again the Transportation Safety Board has linked Transport Canada’s lax oversight to airline crashes.

The TSB Chair Kathy Fox wrote an oped that was published in The Hill Times on October 26th last year. She said:

“This kind of reluctance to step in and take action—of not knowing when enough is enough—goes beyond one company or even one accident…Without a significant overhaul in the way Transport Canada oversees how companies manage safety—and how those companies in turn demonstrate that their safety processes are working—this issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon.”

Nothing will change without new investment in and a new commitment to direct operational oversight. It’s fine to require airlines to have their own safety systems but Transport Canada needs to continue to serve the public interest by ensuring compliance with safety requirements and enforcing those requirements when need be.

Some of you may know that the Transport Committee will begin a study on aviation safety tomorrow. We hope it will be the start of action to change the grim future aviation inspectors fear the most.

I am happy to take your questions.


For information:

Jim Thompson

ABACUS Survey Report – English and French