FEDERAL (Canadian OH&S News)
Hazards facing pilots flying over Canada’s north have reached new heights, according to industry insiders.
Spurned by the official opposition’s transport and infrastructure critic, MP Olivia Chow, pilots associations and airlines are calling upon the government to update and standardize airports in the Arctic provinces and territories.
Airlines operating in the northern regions of the country must overcome unique obstacles, including archaic unpaved runways and landing systems — which Chow said is the result of a lack of funding from Transport Canada, whose standards are lagging behind the international stage.
“Almost every month there is a fatal plane crash in Canada’s north, and a lot of them are preventable,” Chow said. “[Pilots] face the challenges of harsh weather conditions, and limited safety equipment and infrastructure, risking their lives to get local residents the food, medical supplies, services and jobs they depend on.”
Earlier this summer, northern aviation safety came to a head after a helicopter pilot, 56-year-old Paul Rosset, died in the Yukon. The Transportation Safety Board is still trying to determine the cause of the fatal crash.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), an international group which represents 57,000 members and 37 airlines in Canada and the U.S., identified 28 airports in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut as needing GPS landing approaches. A GPS-based system, Chow said, would improve safety and eliminate the need for pilots to rely on sight to land. Chow also cited runway improvements and the use of Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (TAWS), which have the potential to prevent collisions.
“Our biggest challenge is infrastructure,” said Stephen Nourse, executive director of the Northern Air Transport Association – which represents 33 airline carriers north of the 60th parallel. He notes that Transport Canada faces a resource issue in the normal processing and approvals area, like bringing in a new aircraft.
“It’s very difficult to get them approved in a timely manner. We’ve had carriers who have brought new airplanes into their fleets and haven’t been able to fly them for months, waiting on Transport Canada approval,” Nourse said.
But Maryse Durette, spokesperson for Transport Canada, noted that air accidents are at an all-time low.
“Canada has one of the safest aviation systems in the world,” Durette said. “During the last decade, we have seen a considerable decline in the accident rate. In fact, the total number of yearly accidents is at record lows.”
In July, Transport Canada made moves to mitigate risks, such as the use of Safety Management Systems (SMS), which help companies to identify and reduce risks before they become bigger problems, Durette explained. As well, TAWS with enhanced altitude accuracy functions — which allows for accurate altitude readings in extremely cold weather — became mandatory in 2011. The transportation ministry also gave all airlines five years to incorporate them. However, Durette said that incorporating these into all airports is a time-consuming process as colder climates require specific technical enhancements.
For Chow, the action is not enough. Although the larger airlines have had SMS in place since 2005, the smaller airlines, which are more common in the north, have until 2015 to implement these changes. She added that the ministry is “passing the buck” to NAV CANADA, the air safety agency jointly-owned by airlines, airports and the federal government — which is facing technical and ownership problems, further delaying TAWS integration.
Consistency, said Nourse, is paramount.
“Transport Canada comes out with well-intentioned initiatives, and they probably make sense if you look at the Canadian context as a whole,” he said. “However, as soon as you look at it on an area-by-area specific basis, sometimes these initiatives have problems.”