Transport Canada failed to conduct planned inspections of about 500 airlines and other aviation companies that could be ``higher risk'' operations, Canada's auditor general found. Michael Ferguson's audit outlined "significant weaknesses'' in the department's surveillance activities in civil aviation.
Overall, the problems at Transport Canada mean the department, charged with ensuring airlines comply with Canada's air safety regulations, is not adequately managing its oversight of airline safety risks.
The audit, completed in September 2011, found that only 67 per cent of air carriers, maintenance companies and large airports were inspected, as they should have been, under annual surveillance plans. This represents about 500 companies.
"The result is significant because only the higher-risk companies are to be selected for inspection and included in the annual surveillance plans. If these plans constitute the minimum level of inspection that management believes is necessary to provide assurance that companies are complying with safety regulations, then Transport Canada cannot have the assurance it says it needs,'' stated the audit, tabled in the House of Commons Tuesday.
In addition, the audit found that while postponing planned inspections "should be supported by a risk assessment,'' management "did not analyze and document its rationale'' for them putting off.
Meanwhile, no minimum acceptable level of surveillance has been established so Transport Canada inspectors know how long a company should operate without being inspected.
And when inspections are carried out, most are not based on established methodology and most are subject to little management oversight, the audit found.
The audit is likely to embolden critics of the federal government's safety management systems (SMS), introduced in the Canadian Aviation Regulations in 2005 as an international first. That's when Transport Canada began to overhaul its surveillance activities to focus on measuring a company's ability to hold itself accountable for meeting safety standards.
This meant shifting from directly inspecting aircraft, records and airline staff to assessing whether companies have effective processes in place to ensure safety.
Since 2008, Transport Canada has required air operators whose aircraft carry 20 passengers or more, and their maintenance organizations, to use SMS.
Large airports and smaller operators are currently transitioning to SMS.
The audit found that a recently developed national human-resources plan to ensure Transport Canada's civil aviation branch has the necessary resources to carry out its safety oversight duties fails to say how many inspectors and engineers are needed.
Transport Canada agreed to provide these figures in its response to the auditor general's 2008 audit of the department's oversight of SMS of large carriers, the 2011 audit notes.
The audit also found that Transport Canada had overestimated the time inspectors had available to conduct surveillance activities and did not have accurate records on the time inspectors spent in various oversight activities.
"In the absence of such information, it is difficult for the department to develop realistic surveillance plans for achieving a minimum level of surveillance activities,'' the audit states.
Overall, efforts to fully implement the new surveillance approach "have been hampered by the lengthy reorganization and by resistance from some inspectors.''
In its response, Transport Canada says it agrees with all 10 recommendations made by the auditor to address the "significant weaknesses'' in how the department plans, conducts and reports on its surveillance activities.