Air safety compliance rules threatened to ground Porter
Oct. 18, 2011, Ottawa - Porter Airlines Inc., is one of a handful of air carriers — and the only large commercial airline — that has faced the threat of being grounded for failing to comply with Transport Canada's air safety rules, government statistics show.
But the company won't say what the issue was that led Transport Canada to issue the warning. Transport Canada is also being mum, raising questions about how much the flying public is entitled to know about an airline's record.
Since 2005, when Transport Canada implemented a new inspection system in civil aviation called Safety Management Systems (SMS), the department has issued 11 notices of suspension to aircraft maintenance companies or commercial airlines. The rarely used enforcement tool usually gives companies 30 days to comply with Canada's aviation regulations or have their Air Operating Certificate suspended until the operation makes changes to bring it into compliance.
Five of the 11 companies specialize in aircraft maintenance and three companies operate chartered flights, according to SMS data tabled in the House of Commons by Transport Minister Denis Lebel at the request of Liberal MP Denis Coderre.
Three passenger airlines — Porter, First Nations Transportation and Buffalo Airways Ltd. — also were issued notices of suspension, the statistics show.
Transport Canada went on to suspend the air operation certification of First Nations Transportation. Porter, Buffalo Airways and the other companies tabled corrective action plans that were accepted by Transport Canada, so the suspension notices were rescinded before the grounding date came into effect.
Both Porter and Transport Canada declined to release any other details, including the nature of the non-compliance or when the notice was issued.
Porter's spokesman Brad Cicero said the government's inspection system is confidential and non-punitive to encourage companies and employees to report all safety-related matters. This involves an "ongoing dialogue" with Transport Canada that includes the regular submission of correction action plans to "promote positive changes," said Cicero.
The oversight system requires airlines to develop and oversee an in-house system of safety checks tailored to their operations. Transport Canada inspectors then review the company's SMS records to determine if the plan to reduce aviation hazards is effective in complying with regulations.
Daniel Slunder, head of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association representing aviation inspectors at Transport Canada, said it's difficult to assess the Porter case without any details, but noted an immediate safety threat or a "real serious issue" results in an immediate notice of suspension. The enforcement tool used in the Porter case provided the company 30 days to respond.
"It's not a frequently used tool and it's usually done to force somebody to do something that they've been reluctant to do over a period of time," said Slunder, explaining it could be "as simple as incomplete documentation and the company has taken much too long to address" the issue.
"Unless you know what the incidence is that precipitated the notice of suspension, I couldn't tell you if it's serious or not. I mean it is serious enough for the company to take notice, but is it directly related to the flight safety? Unless it's an immediate threat to safety, they will not shut you down, not instantly," said Slunder.
Consumer advocate Gerry Einarsson chairs Transport Action's Air Passenger Safety Group and represents the organization on Transport Canada's Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council. He said a non-punitive principle for employees is important for SMS to work properly in civil aviation, but it's also important to find the right balance when it comes to public disclosure.
"When there are allegations that can be serious, I would expect the public should be able to find out something about it. That was a concern expressed when they introduced SMS, and it was always met with the objection that, 'Well, people won't report it.' It's a tough question to really come down hard on either side. There was no guidance offered about how serious it has to be before the public has the right to find out about it," said Einarsson.
Charter companies Execaire, Skyservice and Arctic Sunset also faced notices of suspension, but avoided being grounded by presenting adequate corrective action plans in response to their notices of suspension.
Five government-approved aircraft maintenance companies also presented adequate corrective plans to avoid certificate suspensions. They are: Goderich Aircraft Inc., Rapid Aircraft Repair Inc., Sky Harbour Aircraft, Springer Aerospace and AVEOS Performance.
The statistics introduced in the House of Commons also show that since 2005, Transport Canada has completed 455 inspection activities involving commercial air operators and aircraft maintenance companies under SMS. These include 294 acceptance validation inspectors, 78 assessments and 74 program validation inspections.