'Pushing paper' trumps safety under new aviation rules, MPs told - SCOTIC Report
Inspectors union cites shoddy wiring, faulty parts, hazardous refuelling practices and iced wings in condemning Transport Canada's latest oversight system
Tu Thanh Ha and Bill Curry
Toronto and Ottawa — The Globe and Mail
Last updated on Monday, Nov. 30, 2009 6:27PM EST
A plane with a hotwired instrument panel and electrical cords held with masking tape. Another repaired with Canadian Tire parts. An Air Canada plane refuelling with the engines running and taking off with ice on the wings.
Those horror stories were presented to a House of Commons hearing today as the aviation inspectors union condemned Canada's new aviation oversight system.
Watch Daniel Slunder and Christine Collins on CBC's Power & Politics
(Segment starts at about 47.05 minutes, and continues after the break)
The Commons transport committee was hearing testimony from Daniel Slunder, national chairman of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association.
The CFPA, which represents about 500 federal aviation inspectors and accident investigators, is critical of Transport Canada's shift to a new oversight regime called Safety Management Systems.
Under SMS, carriers are supposed to have oversight systems in place and government inspectors monitor those systems instead of doing hands-on checks.
“I regret to inform you that TC aviation inspectors now spend more time pushing paper than inspecting airplanes,” Mr. Slunder told the committee.
He listed some incidents which he said illustrated the SMS shortcomings. In one, a regional carrier applied to modify a passenger plane to increase its fuel capacity and install a high-frequency radio.
“Under SMS, an inspector's job is to review this application and sign off that the paperwork is in order. Nothing else,” Mr. Slunder said.
He then presented photos of the repaired plane, with electrical cords held up by masking tape in the cabin and a cockpit instrument panel on which a power line had been hotwired without grounding.
“As you can see ... the installation fell far short of paper promises,” Mr. Slunder said. Another problem with SMS, he said, is that inspectors no longer check the skills of professional pilots, leaving it to companies to check their own pilots.
This, he said, has robbed inspectors of an opportunity to see how carriers conduct their flight operations. One case where an inspector was supposed to fly uncovered an aircraft repaired with non-aviation wing bolts and Canadian Tire electrical connectors.
“This airplane is not safe to fly,” Mr. Slunder said, showing photos. “Yet it has carried passengers in this condition, all because its state of disrepair was not visible through an assessment of this company's SMS.”
The last example he presented dealt with an Air Canada flight that is alleged to have refuelled while the engines were running and took off with ice on its wings.
Air Canada Flight 271, an Airbus A320 flying from Toronto the evening of Oct. 9, had to be diverted to Grand Forks, N.D., because of runway congestion at its destination, Winnipeg.
While it was refuelling in Grand Forks, a passenger spotted ice building up on the wings. The passenger was an Canadian airline pilot with 20,000 hours experience now working for Emirates Airlines. In an e-mail account he later sent Transport Canada, he said he warned the cabin crew of the ice contamination. He said he was told that the flight crew considered what he saw was just moisture and continued the flight.
The Emirates pilot subsequently checked weather records and found the temperature in Grand Forks at the time was 3 degrees below freezing.
The Emirates pilot said he later heard from a friend at Air Canada that the Airbus had a malfunctioning auxiliary power unit, the device that generates the energy to start the engines.
As a result, the crew had to keep the engines running and do a “hot refuel,” a more dangerous procedure, the Emirates pilot alleged in his e-mail, acknowledging however that it was hearsay.
The pilot contacted Transport Canada and was told that, under SMS, it would be Air Canada's responsibility to conduct an internal investigation while the federal regulator would be “closely monitoring” the process and make sure corrective steps would be applied.
“This is a much more effective means of oversight than what we have traditionally been able to accomplish,” Jennifer Taylor, director of National Operations at Transport Canada told the pilot in an e-mailed released by the CFPA.
SMS allows inspectors to look into the workings of a carrier more deeply than they would be able to do through random checks, Marc Grégoire, Transport's assistant deputy minister for safety and security, told the committee.
There are currently 878 inspectors and the remaining 98 vacancies will be filled by the end of the summer, Mr. Grégoire said.
“What do you think we are going to do with 878 inspectors, play cards at the office?” he said, insisting there will still be oversight.
He also said that a portion of Transport Canada's inspection duties will always include inspections at the “operational” level and that the department is always open to improving the system based on the feedback from inspectors. “I don't see the problem,” Mr. Grégoire said. “We have one objective, and that's to improve air safety.”
The senior Transport Canada official agreed with Conservative MP Brian Jean's assertion that SMS has nothing to do with deregulation or taking away safety measures to save money.
“SMS is an addition level of regulation,” Mr. Grégoire said.
The theory behind SMS has been embraced in many industries. However, its application in Canadian aviation has been contested.
Canada was the first country to move to SMS for aviation. In a report last year, the Auditor-General said Transport Canada failed to assess properly the impact of the SMS change on oversight.
Christine Collins, the national president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, compared the situation to last year’s listeria outbreak. In that case, government food safety inspectors blamed the outbreak in part on a move toward industry self-regulation.
“Inspectors are no longer inspecting aircraft,” she said, adding that SMS could still be fixed. “Most inspectors do not even leave the Transport Canada office.”