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CATCA: NAV Canada actions speak louder than words when it comes to public safety


February 25, 2021
By Doug Best

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Doug Best is President and CEO of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association, the union representing all air traffic controllers in Canada.

Ray Bohn, President and CEO of NAV Canada, is dismayed by comments I have made about potential changes to the level of air traffic control service provided at several airports, as well as layoffs at several Area Control Centres. I am equally dismayed by his response, as he continues to make assertions that do not hold up under scrutiny.

We are in agreement that all decisions should be made “in the interest of preserving the integrity and sustainability of Canada’s air navigation system.” Our contention is that NAV Canada is failing to do so and that will have an impact on safety.

To be clear, no one is suggesting that NAV Canada has intentionally downgraded the role that safety plays in decision-making. Rather, it is in their response to the impacts of COVID-19 on the aviation industry where Mr. Bohn and NAV Canada executives have made decisions that will have a predictable adverse impact on safety and efficiency in air navigation services.

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Mr. Bohn and his executive team have already reduced the size of the workforce and are proposing further reductions, in order to “adjust and align our workforce to our new realities.” But the new realities to which Mr. Bohn refers are temporary. Traffic will return and there will not be enough staff to conduct the work. Under a newly developed staffing plan NAV Canada has rolled out, which came into effect post-pandemic late last year, air traffic control units are close to 100 per cent staffed, however that number is based on significantly reduced traffic levels that are 60 per cent below the levels in 2019 for scheduled commercial aircraft. This is a far cry from pre-COVID staffing levels, which were close to 13 per cent short of air traffic control licenses.

Controllers have been and will be let go to reduce the workforce. Nearly all trainees have been let go. It takes two to three years to train an air traffic controller and training success is low due to the high skill and stress related to the job, yet there is no training at the current time. The system will be severely short-staffed when the commercial carriers resume flying. This will result in delays and greatly increased workloads for the controllers still working. Mr. Bohn is the one being disingenuous if he suggests that this will have no predictable impact on safety.

All of this ignores the fact that for general aviation airports, the ones that support flight training, private pilots, charters, and business aircraft, the traffic has already returned. Most of these airports are already meeting or exceeding traffic levels from 2019, yet continue to function with reduced staff and no overtime to fill holes in the schedules, resulting in short-staffed units working 12-hour shifts on a regular basis while trying to maintain the operation. This pace of work can be sustained over a short period but there is no plan in place to bring staffing levels back to pre-COVID levels.

The suggestion that safety is not at risk is what is irresponsible.

There continues to be a complete lack of concern for the psychological impacts of NAV Canada decisions regarding the job status of its air traffic controllers, some of whom have notice of upcoming lay-off and the rest of whom feel their positions are in an ongoing precarious state. The impact of a looming or potential job loss on employee mental health cannot be overstated, particularly in one of the most demanding and high-stress professions and one that is essential to ensuring public safety. Despite our pleas to consider the toll of its decisions on the employees and the risks involved, NAV Canada pushes forward undeterred.

As for the consultations with the unions at NAV Canada, suffice it to say that Mr. Bohn and I have different definitions of “meaningful and constructive dialogue.” I would only remind him that the word dialogue means that not just one party, but two parties are exchanging ideas and opinions.

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In 2019, NAV Canada was already short-staffed for controllers. These further reductions, with no training in place, make the situation worse. The actions of setting staffing requirements following the biggest drop in airline traffic in memory (the result of a temporary decline in aviation demand due to a global pandemic), laying off qualified controllers based on those requirements, and no training underway to refill any positions, hardly meet the responsibility to “preserve the integrity and sustainability of Canada’s air navigation system.”

As a side note, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Mr. Bohn and the NAV Canada Training Department. For the first time in decades, air traffic controllers are as close as we may ever be to 100 per cent staffing. It only took a pandemic and manipulation of staffing numbers to make this happen.