OTTAWA — Top officials at Transport Canada on Tuesday vowed to step up oversight at major airlines after admitting government inspectors did fewer spot safety checks in the last few years.
"We haven't done as much surveillance activities as we wanted to do, but that will change in the next three years," Marc Gregoire, assistant deputy minister of safety and security, told MPs at the launch of parliamentary hearings into aviation safety in Canada.
Gregoire and deputy minister Yaprak Baltacioglu kicked off the hearings by acknowledging problems with the way the government has been implementing its new oversight regime, called safety management systems (SMS). But they both defended the approach, already fully phased in at such large carriers as Air Canada and WestJet.
Transport Canada has delayed implementation at small carriers for at least a year after being inundated with concerns from its own inspectors about problems during the initial phase in at these smaller operations, often serving remote communities.
The system puts more onus on carriers by requiring them to develop and oversee an in-house system of safety checks tailored to their operations. Transport Canada inspectors still ensure all safety regulations are followed, but the emphasis is placed on reviewing a company's SMS to determine whether the internal plan to reduce aviation hazards and risks is effective.
This regulatory system is a shift away from traditional oversight where government inspectors had a much more hands-on role in auditing the safety operations.
Gregoire said Transport Canada is committed to hiring 60 additional aviation inspectors on an "urgent basis" before summer and another 38 before autumn to boost oversight. That will include random safety checks at targeted operations based on risk assessments.
"A lot of work has been done and is continuing to make improvements to an already very solid system. I am confident that all this work will go a long way toward improving understanding of SMS by our employees and the public. The bottom line is that Canadians can be confident in the aviation safety surveillance program," he told MPs on the House of Commons transportation committee.
"The only reason we're implementing SMS is to save lives and improve safety," Gregoire added later in response to questions from opposition MPs.
"SMS is not about no government oversight. It is about proper government oversight. It's about using our resources to the weakest areas. It's not deregulation, it's smarter regulation," said Baltacioglu.
They pointed to decreasing accident rates as evidence of a strengthened aviation system. The accident rate for 2008 — 5.7 accidents for every 100,000 hours flown — was the lowest rate in the last 10 years.
Accidents are investigated by the Transportation Safety Board. Correspondence released to Canwest News Service under access to information suggests SMS is at times under scrutiny by board investigators.
In February 2009, the TSB asked Transport Canada officials a series of questions pertaining to two carriers that had mid-air contact a few months earlier. Both were approaching the airstrip in the Labrador community of Natuashish at the time.
"Once again this seems to be turning into an SMS investigation," Don Sherritt, Transport Canada's director of standards, wrote to senior colleagues at Transport Canada.
Sherritt, who also testified at the parliamentary hearings on Tuesday, told MPs airlines are the best positioned to identify hazards and risks in their operations.
The aviation safety hearings continue Thursday.
(Original article no longer available on Vancouver Sun website)