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New TC summit will explore pilot health issues

For the first time, Transport Canada is holding an aviation safety summit this week that will focus on helping pilots with mental health issues and substance abuse disorders.


June 5, 2017
By CBC News

Tuesday’s Fit to Fly workshop in Gatineau, Que., follows two incidents last year where pilots were caught under the influence.

The summit is aimed at figuring out if tougher safety rules are needed and if pilots should face random alcohol and drug testing.

In the first incident, Scottish authorities intercepted two Canadian-licensed Air Transat pilots on July 18, 2016, in Glasgow before a flight to Toronto and gave them breathalyzer and blood tests.

They were charged with exceeding the legal blood-alcohol limit in Scotland.

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Six months later, on New Year’s Eve, Sunwing pilot Miroslav Gronych was so drunk when he stumbled onto his airplane in Calgary that his pin was upside down and he appeared to pass out in the captain’s chair.

The foreign national from Slovakia, who was in Canada on a work visa, pleaded guilty to a charge of impaired while in control of an aircraft in March.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau sent letters to all Canadian airlines saying he was “very concerned” about the incident.

CBC News recently obtained briefing notes prepared for Garneau about the two incidents which said Transport Canada is considering changing its rules. Garneau’s office said the minister wasn’t available for an interview until the workshop starts on June 6. 

“TC is developing a policy for the minister’s consideration for timely action against pilots caught working under the influence, while at the same time supporting the wellness programs that airlines have in place for those with alcohol or drug abuse issues,” reads the document, dated Jan. 12, 2017.

Pilots, unions and health experts from across the country and abroad are now descending on the national capital region for the two-day event to figure out what else can be done to improve safety, “including whether any regulatory changes should be considered,” Transport Canada confirmed. 

In Canada, it’s against the law for pilots to fly within eight hours of having an alcoholic drink or being under the influence.

Transport Canada said it takes violations of those rules seriously. It can revoke licences and issue fines of up to $5,000 for a pilot and up to $25,000 for a corporation, according to the briefing note.

No regulator in Canada has mandated random drug and alcohol testing yet, as privacy laws have made such a step challenging.  A 2013 Supreme Court of Canada decision ruled that random testing of employees is only allowed if there’s reason to believe a worker is impaired on duty or if he or she was directly involved in a workplace accident.

In May, the Toronto Transit Commission started testing up to eight workers a day, including bus and subway drivers — a decision that was later upheld by a judge, despite attempts by their union to block the policy.

So far, three employees have tested positive, none of whom were operators.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) could also soon pave the way for regulators to mandate random drug and alcohol testing. 

The commission is proposing that a very small number of workers with high-risk jobs at nuclear plants be tested.

André Bouchard, a director with CNSC, is attending Tuesday’s workshop and said he would be passing along what he’d learned during eight years of consultations with stakeholders, unions and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The proposed regulations will be voted on in August, and Bouchard said he believes the potential policy strikes a balance between safety and workers’ rights. 

“It’s less than one per cent of the overall population that will be subjected to that measure,” Bouchard said. “These are the people in the control room of the reactor. They are also the people responsible for the physical security of the premises.”

“We want to be proactive. We do not want to wait for an event to happen,” he added. ​

Bouchard also said he wants the aviation industry to know that it’s important to workers that they aren’t penalized if they test positive. Instead, they should be given help and put into support programs, he said. 

Some pilots think random alcohol and drug testing isn’t a bad idea. 

Jock Williams, a retired commercial pilot and former Transport Canada flight safety official, said the majority of pilots never break the rules, so it may not be necessary. But it wouldn’t hurt either, he added. 

“If you prevent one accident, you’re ahead,” Williams said. 

Williams said he underwent similar testing between 2003 and 2005 when he worked for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, until they stopped doing it over complaints about employees’ rights.

He said a computer would spit out names and those pilots had to report to the nurses’ station to give a blood and urine sample.

“I think it probably created an atmosphere in which people did not brush with the rules because they knew they could be caught,” Williams said. “Certainly the feeling was, if you were caught with a blood-alcohol reading or any other actionable drug, that you would be fired — simple as that.”

Nevertheless, random drug testing is a sensitive and controversial topic in the aviation community. 

There are concerns over false positive tests, medical files being not handled securely, and pilots being treated as if they can’t be trusted to follow the rules, according to Greg Holbrook, director of operations for the Canadian Federal Pilots Association. 

Holbrook said the fact the Sunwing pilot last year was intercepted before taking off in Calgary shows the current system is working. 

“We really haven’t had a huge problem with this in Canada, because most Canadian aviators are well steeped in the understanding that impairment and operation of an aircraft just do not go together,” he said.

Canada already has strong rules and programs in place to get pilots help with issues before it gets to the point where they abuse alcohol and drugs, Holbrook added. That includes peer-to-peer support programs and regular medical check-ups with specialized aviation doctors every six months. 

But at the same time, Holbrook said he thinks it’s worthwhile that the workshop is reevaluating the current system and how to improve it.