The evidence of a decline in aviation safety in Canada comes from many sources: from industry experts; pilots, mechanics and their unions; accident investigations; and reports by investigative journalists.
The picture that emerges is a disturbing one: an industry where staff and insiders often fear to travel on their own companies' planes, and a system which increasingly looks like 'an accident looking for someplace to happen'.
Here are some of the facts:
- The entire aviation industry, worldwide, is operating under intense pressure to cut costs and to keep planes flying without interruption. The first casualties of this drive for short term profit are aircraft maintenance, flight crew hours, and operational safety standards. In order to maintain tight schedules, exhausted pilots may be forced to fly planes with known mechanical problems and minimal reserve fuel in all kinds of bad weather. Developed countries rely upon mandatory high standards and alert regulators to maintain safety margins in spite of these pressures.
- The growth of the industry has created a proliferation of startups -- typically small carriers, operating old aircraft on a shoestring, with young, inexperienced and poorly trained pilots and mechanics, and 'entrepreneurial' (i.e. risk-taking) owners. Canada has its share of these.
- Canada's regulator – Transport Canada – has a track record of failing to inspect and monitor carriers adequately, allowing companies with severe and persistent safety problems to continue flying, and concealing these serious risks from the public.
- After being found partially responsible for previous accidents due to its lax regulatory oversight (and being successfully sued) Transport Canada is attempting to rid itself of any regulatory responsibility by making carriers entirely responsible for managing, inspecting and reporting on their own safety systems.
- Under the ideological banner of 'deregulation', Transport Canada has re-defined its role to be a 'partner' with the aviation industry (as opposed to a guardian of safety and the public interest), and seems unwilling to inspect problem carriers or to sanction them or even to disclose their failings.
- Justice Virgil Moshansky, commssioner of the 3-year public inquiry that followed the Dryden crash, has stated that Canada is now failing to meet its safety obligations under international treaties, to the point that our airlines could be barred from using other countries' airspace. This is the ultmate sanction, typically reserved for the dregs of the industry such as gun-runners and carriers based in war zones or failed states.
- On virtually every important point of comparison, Canada's air safety system is significantly inferior to other developed countries, especially the USA. For example:
- Canada's standards for crew working hours – critical to combat pilot fatigue – are among the most lax in the developed world.
- Canada's standards for visibility during bad-weather landings are far lower than the USA and are considered highly risky by pilots.
- In 1996 Transport Canada's problem-plagued air traffic control system – which is vital to air safety – was handed over to a newly formed private sector company (Nav Canada). This company seems to have adopted an adversarial approach to employee relations, and air traffic controllers have reported that long hours and short staffing are compromising safety. But as a private company the operations and performance of the traffic control system are now shrouded in commercial secrecy. Nav Canada claims that its safety performance is improving but we have only the company's word for that, and the Auditor General has criticized the company's performance measurement system as being problematic, not reconciled with other sources, and likely prone to under-reporting.
- There are signs that the Transportation Safety Board – the agency that investigates accidents and recommends improvements – is losing its independence and hence its ability to do its job. Some of its investigations have been criticized as superficial and the TSB seems increasingly reluctant to report findings that reflect badly on Transport Canada or the carriers. Many industry insiders consider that the common finding of "pilot error" simply provides a convenient way of blaming a (dead) victim, while overlooking the shortcomings of others: the manufacturer, the carrier, Transport Canada, Nav Canada, or the TSB itself.
- Although airline and government officials repeatedly assert that Canada's skies are among the safest in the world, many official statistics and reports contradict this. The safety record of small carriers operating light aircraft – the lifeline of remote communities – is bad and getting worse. The safety record of some new, upstart airlines has been appalling. It is mainly through pure luck and pilot skill that Canada's aviation 'body count' is not much higher. A prime example is the 2001 Air Transat flight that ran out of fuel over the Atlantic and glided, all engines dead, to a precarious landing in the Azores. Numerous near-misses like this, that could have cost hundreds of lives, have miraculously avoided tragedy – so far.
- Both government and the industry maintain an information blackout by silencing and crushing employees who voice safety concerns. Although the industry claims to welcome information about safety problems, pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and other employees who have come forward with concerns are nearly always disciplined and/or fired.
- Unlike the USA, Canada has no whistleblower legislation to protect these employees. Government departments like Transport Canada are equally aggressive in seeking to silence and punish employees who raise concerns. Although there is legislation that supposedly protects federal government whistleblowers, this is riddled with loopholes and has proven to be totally ineffective. No matter how bad things get in the industry, we will only rarely hear warnings from insiders – it is just too dangerous to their careers and their livelihood.
Aviation is inherently a risky business, since it involves propelling people through the air at high speeds inside flimsy aluminium containers surrounded by highly flamable fuel; and doing this day and night in all kinds of weather. It is relatively safe only because the system has been built with countless redundancies, backups, and margins for error.
When the system begins to degrade it will continue to work – most of the time – but it is no longer safe. Eventually two or three small errors, apparently minor shortcomings that have become commonplace, will combine to create a lethal, catastrophic failure, and many people will die. As in Dryden, the resulting public inquiry will reveal a stunning array of systemic problems that had been ignored, and the public will demand reform.
Such reforms are called 'tombstone improvements.' Many who work in the industry believe that reform is urgently needed and wish that it could come now, as a result of intelligent warnings, rather than later as the result of a fireball.
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