Canada violates rules on pilot fatigue standards, MPs hear

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Sarah Schmidt, Canwest News Service – April 27, 2010

OTTAWA — Canada is in violation of new international standards to combat pilot fatigue in the cockpit, the country's largest pilot union told parliamentarians Tuesday.

Paul Strachan, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association, said Transport Canada's outdated flight and duty time regulations put Canada offside internationally because they don't take into account the latest research on why flying overnight is harder on the body than day-time flying.

The new requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Montreal-based United Nations civil aviation agency, came into effect last November, requiring member states, including Canada, to manage pilot fatigue based on best practices and scientific knowledge about flying and the circadian rhythm.

Canada's regulations, written in 1965 and updated in 1996, permit pilots to fly 14 hours in a 24-hour period, with specific guidelines for rest periods in between. Unlike other countries, the federal rules in Canada do not distinguish between daytime flying and overnight flights.

"Currently, we are not compliant with the ICAO stipulations," Strachan told MPs on the House of Commons transport committee probing the state of aviation safety in Canada.

"The data is there, the science is there," he said of the physical toll it takes to fly overnight during "those back-side of the clock" hours.

To emphasize his point, Strachan directed MPs to research showing the effects on a pilot of flying fatigued are similar to those of flying under the influence of alcohol.

"Scientific research has shown that the effects of fatigue on performance are comparable to the effects of the consumption of alcohol. But although there are very strict laws worldwide to prevent pilots from flying under the influence of alcohol, Canada has no science-based regulations to prevent pilot fatigue, as mandated by ICAO."

In a statement issued Tuesday, Transport Canada said it has "strict safety regulations for flight time and rest periods for flight crews" and these are "compliant with the principles laid out in ICAO's updates standards."

The department has committed to launching a review of its pilot fatigue policies this summer under the auspices of the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council (CARAC).

Transport Canada expects this process to take at least two years.

Strachan told MPs this approach resembled "body bag safety policy" development because of an anticipated drawn-out process, during which there could be another fatigue-related accident.

"It's like you hit the ball and it takes you a couple of years to get to first base," said Strachan.

Air Canada pilots already have negotiated flight and duty time rules into their contract to reflect the latest science on pilot fatigue and the circadian rhythm, but smaller airlines follow the Transport Canada regulations.

"There should be one level of safety, whether we get on Air Canada or a northern flight," testified Barry Wisznioswki, chairman of the union's technical and safety division.

Original article on Montreal Gazette website