Air Surveillance: It’s time to get it right

November 14, 2013
Written by David Olsen
Three years after Transport Minister John Baird announced that certification and oversight of (aircraft) operators are the core responsibilities of Transport Canada (TC) and should not be conducted by the private sector (i.e., Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA)), Wings asked in its May/June 2013 issue if the repatriation of the Private Owners Certificate (POC) process spelled an ominous future for the CBAA.

Regulation does not mean telling people in detail how they must achieve the required outcome. Stock photo


Well, the CBAA, under the new leadership of president/CEO Rudy Toering, is redefining itself and is doing just fine, thank you very much, working to position itself for a strong and vibrant future. Concurrently however, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) annual report (2012-2013 – tabled June 20), could easily be subtitled, “Dawn or Sunset for Transport Canada?”

Transport Canada was hard hit (again) by spending cuts in the federal budget, and this year, the general public was stunned by the horror of the Lac Mégantic rail disaster on July 5. Transport is accountable for both aviation and rail transport in this country, and Maclean’s magazine summed up the tragedy in one word: its headline, “Unforgivable,” with the deck of: “Lax rules, cost-cutting and compromises on safety.” In response, however, the federal government, facing questions on safety, accused questioners of “playing politics with tragedy.”

Then came the TSB report on the 2011 Northern Thunderbird crash of a Beechcraft King Air A100 at Vancouver International, which criticized TC for repeatedly ignoring TSB recommendations to prevent post-crash fires. Five male and two female passengers escaped the burning plane, but the two pilots were trapped inside the cockpit and later died from their injuries.

Director General of Civil Aviation Martin Eley did a good job of explaining the TC position in the accident, but the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has shown less reticence about demanding equipment changes, whether aircraft manufacturers like it or not.

The TSB annual report pulled no punches, remaining “particularly concerned about aviation, where only 60 per cent of its recommendations have been fully addressed.” TSB chair Wendy Tadros put it succinctly: “For families that have lost a loved one at a rail crossing or in a plane crash, the fact overall numbers are going down isn’t going to matter – they want answers, and to know that Transport Canada (and industry) will fix the problem.”

“Fix” is the operative word and (safety) regulation is about fixing – not talking. Canada is now in a regulatory crisis, which put at risk not only lives, but also the economic viability of the aviation industry. There is much talk of downloading regulatory activities to industry (which it has to pay for) and being non-prescriptive. But regulation is prescriptive – that’s its function, with the prescriptive aspect based on what must be done, based on science, to ensure a safe, economically viable outcome for providers and users. Regulation does not mean telling people in detail how they must achieve the required outcome.

It’s pointless for transport ministers to say – as in the CBAA case – that certification and oversight is the core responsibility of TC, if the minister (or more likely her boss, the Prime Minister) cuts the ability of TC to do just that, with the consequent potential cuts to aviation safety and economic viability. Regulation doesn’t mean slowing down certification of a new aircraft or introduction of a new type to business or airline service. It means making sure it’s done right, without delay so that the operator stays safe and stays in business!

In the March/April 2012 issue of Wings, we presented a better model for TC (See, “Building a new model, pg. 18), but we have seen little progress. It should be obvious to anyone not obsessed with power games and politics, that for TC civil aviation at least, a total makeover is needed. We don’t need to copy Australia or Britain, or other specialist aviation regulators not subject to political whims for their funding and operation. But we can appoint an independent third party to come up with a new blueprint – fast. The regulatory problem was highlighted this summer when TC started discussions with the Victoria Harbour Authority about a possible transfer of the water airport to the Authority. Yet the water airport regulations (CAR 306) had still not been brought into force, 10 years after public consultation in 2003. Meanwhile, on April 29, TC published a Forward Regulatory Plan for an amendment to CAR 306, which does not legally exist! (try finding it on the TC website).

Regulation is also about economic and market access, airline ownership, consumer protection, taxation, airport and ANS economics – which came under scrutiny at the March 2013 International Civil Aviation Organization Sixth Worldwide Air Transport Conference and at the ACI World Airports Economic Conference in Mexico City in July.

The time has come to breath new life into TC and the critical role it plays in keeping passengers safe.

This is David J. Olsen’s final column for Wings.  He is retiring after a brilliant 50-year aviation career aviation in the Royal Air Force, DCA New Zealand, Transport Canada, ICAO, IATA, industry and as a consultant and writer.

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