Apr 2, 2007

Air taxi owner says safety violations rampant

This item came across my desk today. I thought I'd pass it on. It seems like this part of the industry hasn't changed much in the thirty years since I was 'there' ... I expect Aviatrix will have some useful insights:

Updated Thu. Mar. 29 2007 10:38 PM ET

Kathy Tomlinson, CTV News

Kirsten Brazier
Kirsten Brazier takes pride in her Ontario air taxi company, DaxAir Inc., which operates one of 3,000 small planes that fly workers and tourists all over Canada each day. Brazier is blowing the whistle on her own industry, though, and is going out on a limb to warn Canadians that many other air taxis are not flying safely.

"Their safety -- their lives -- are actually at risk," Brazier told CTV News.

She told us safety violations have become widespread in her industry. Brazier claimed many operators now break the law by overloading planes and not maintaining them properly. She said pilots routinely fly in bad weather or fly too many hours, without the required amount of maintenance -- practices which also violate the rules.

"There is a lot of rule-breaking going on across the board," Brazier said. "It's standard industry practice. It's a sad thing to have to say, but it is."

She said the pilots then have no choice but to fudge their log books -- to make it look like they aren't in violation.

"This happens all the time," Brazier said. "It's quite common for a pilot to be expected to continue operating the airplane with things that are broken to keep the operation going. There's a lot of pressure on the pilots and the mechanics to not do their job, essentially."

The primary reasons, Brazier said, are cost and competition. For small operators, fuel and insurance are becoming unaffordable, while the market is shrinking and becoming more competitive. Many operators, she said, now feel they must break the rules just to make a profit.

"In order to survive people are cutting corners," she told CTV News. "In the end we (in the industry) are faced with a decision to either break the law or go out of business."

What's driving Brazier to speak out now is Ottawa's proposed legislation, Bill C-6, that would essentially transfer responsibility for managing airline safety from Transport Canada to the airlines themselves. The proposed new regulations, called "Safety Management Systems," would require airlines to investigate their own unsafe incidents, and report back to government on how they will avoid similar situations the future.

"You're talking about new legislation that will put control of the industry in the hands of the industry," Brazier said.

She said the plan may be fine for larger carriers, which already have their own safety management people. She told CTV News, there's no way air taxi operators will be able to comply. She believes her industry needs more government oversight, not less.

"The industry might be breaking the rules but the government isn't helping the situation," Brazier said.

In anticipation of the change to Safety Management Systems (SMS), Transport Canada has already stopped regular safety audits of the industry, and cancelled ongoing investigations.

CTV News obtained dozens of reports on incidents involving Canada's air taxi operators, for 2005 and 2006. They are reports airlines must file with the government, by law, when an incident poses a serious or potentially serious safety hazard. On average, at least one of these incident reports is filed each week. They include accidents, near misses and mechanical problems. The majority of them were never investigated by government officials.

One of many examples occurred in Grande Prairie, Alta. in February 2005. It was a close call, and remains unexplained because it's never been investigated. A Cessna 550, C-GDLR, taxied for takeoff down a runway -- right into the path of a Beech King Air 100, which was heading in for a landing. The two aircraft were on a collision course in a runway intersection -- less than a quarter of a mile and only a few seconds apart - when the Beech King Air pulled up and away, aborting its landing.

Other examples include near misses where aircraft came within 200 feet of one another -- a hair away from collision, by aviation standards. Several mechanical problems are also documented, including mid-air engine failures and landing gear malfunctions.

Greg Holbrook - Right
"Because the inspectors will not be going out and doing the checks of the actual operation themselves anymore, it will be left to the industry and those kinds of activities will not come to light," said Greg Holbrook, a pilot who is president of the Canadian Federal Pilot's Association. His group represents aviation inspectors who work for Transport Canada, and has been very critical of the changes proposed in Bill C-6 -- especially when it comes to the air taxi industry.

"These air operators are occupying the same airspace and the same runways that all the major airlines are operating on," said Holbrook. "The inspectors will simply forward the information (about unsafe incidents) to the companies and they will be responsible for determining what they will or won't do about it on their own."

He said the majority of Transport Canada inspectors recently surveyed predicted a crash -- if the proposed changes go through.

"Most inspectors are very concerned about that possibility," Holbrook told CTV News.

""It's going to increase the risk to the safety of the Canadian air traveling public, without a doubt," said Justice Virgil Moshansky, from Calgary. He investigated the 1989 crash in Dryden, Ont. that killed 24 people. He told CTV News the current situation, especially with the smaller carriers, is like deja vu.

"If your direction is to keep the aircraft in the air, and you defer maintenance, then you increase the risk to safety. That occurred at the time of Dryden and I suspect that is occurring now," Moshansky said. "We are on the slippery slope to another Dryden."

CTV News put those concerns to the head of Transport Canada, Merlin Preuss, in Ottawa. He responded that C-6 is still a proposal that will likely undergo changes before it becomes law.

"Everything we are doing, while making this addition to the regulatory framework, is being done extremely cautiously," said Preuss. "We think it's going to work."

Brazier wants Canadians to know that, in her opinion, their safety hangs in the balance.

"There is a lot of talk about safety - but there is no safety. In order to have safety you have to stop the (air taxi) industry from what it is doing."


Ron said...

Maybe I'm crazy, but the "industry being in control of the industry" doesn't sound so bad. Why must everything be controlled by the government?

Hysteria about Pilots Gone Wild makes for a nice tabloid headline, but I can't imagine that the accident rate would skyrocket with no repercussion for the charter industry. They carry insurance and pay premiums which are in proportion to the expected loss the insurance company will endure. The more unsafe the industry gets, the higher the insurance premiums -- if they can get coverage at all.

In the end, the insurance equation will keep charters on a fairly even keel. It's already the primary regulating factor here in the United States. The requirements for insurance coverage far outweigh any imposed by the FAA, and our accident rates have been in a long term decline for many years.


Anonymous said...

Scary stuff!

When are you going to finish the "A Day In The Life" Series?

Aviatrix said...

Regarding SMS, I find it interesting that the media focus on the reduction in regulartory supervision rather than the essence of SMS.

The idea of SMS is that every incident and potential is tracked and analysed so as to prevent the big incidents from occurring. The system has everyone part of safety all the time, not just some inspector who comes up and looks at the airplanes that happen to be a t some base on some day. Applied properly in a blame-free reporting environment, I've seen it work well. Problems are fixed before regulators would even have known about them.

The trouble starts when an SMS-trained pilot reports an incident in a blame-based company culture, as I learned to my chagrin.

And regarding pushing limits, at the end of the day the pilots are in the airplane and it is our licence that is on the line. We're not goingto do anything we believe will hurt us. It's true that that does involve fighting operators, however.

Anonymous said...

I haven't studied SMS, but it sounds like it must be the equivalent of the AQP Crew Training equivalent, where Quality Control management techniques are applied to find weak spots before they result in accidents.

And the best part of such a system is it "checks the checkers" - we've all heard of (or experienced) checkers in training and maintenance/enforcement who had their pet peeves and unreasonable standards on some particular aspect.