TORONTO – A near-collision of an Air Canada jet at San Francisco’s airport should be a wake-up call for the federal government to adequately address pilot fatigue for overnight flights, the union representing the airline’s pilots said Wednesday.
“I don’t know what else it would take to wake them up that this is a significant concern,” said Capt. Matt Hogan, chairman of the Air Canada Pilots Association master elected council.
The pilots’ group was responding to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which concluded that pilot error and fatigue were contributing factors to the July 2017 incident.
The NTSB issued 19 findings, including that current Canadian regulations don’t, in some circumstances, allow for sufficient rest for reserve pilots. The flight’s captain had been awake for more than 19 hours while the first officer on the flight from Toronto had been awake 12 hours.
“I would suggest that’s a very strong message that they should probably take action sooner than later and do it properly,” Hogan said in an interview.
The pilots were apparently confused because one of two parallel runways was closed and dark before the late-night incident. The crew was seconds from landing their Airbus A320 jet on a taxiway where other planes loaded with passengers were waiting to take off.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau says the government agrees that pilot fatigue rules need updating and that he has been working on the issue since coming into office in 2015.
“I take the safety or air travellers and the public very seriously, and believe a well-rested pilot is central to this,” he said in a statement.
But Hogan says Ottawa hasn’t gone far enough. He said the flight duty limit for evening and overnight flights should be changed to 8.5 hours, in line with NASA recommendations. The Federal Aviation Administration limits crews to 8 hours at night on flights that aren’t ultra long haul.
Draft proposals by the government are suggesting the threshold drop from almost 14 hours to a maximum of nine hours for night-time flights and up to 13 hours for daytime flights.
But the union argues that duty time for flights taking off between 5 p.m. and 9:59 p.m. is still too high under the proposal at 10.5 hours.
Flights during overnight hours when crews would normally be asleep can be especially challenging because it coincides with the start of the human circadian low period when alertness and performance are degraded.
Although various proposals have been studied since 2010, the minister proposed regulations more than a year ago and has consulted with pilots, industry and passengers.
Transport Canada said it is working to have the final regulations that “will be aligned with those of the U.S. and Europe” to be published in the Canada Gazette this year.
Air Canada submitted a joint proposal to the government in September 2017 that addressed duty time and fatigue rules, including maximum flight duty periods, reserve crews, rest periods, time zone differences and unforeseen operations.
“It should be noted that Air Canada flight time rules are significantly enhanced and more robust than those contained in the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARS),” the airline Wednesday said in an email. “Air Canada’s Fatigue Risk Management System is the most advanced in the country.”
During the NTSB hearing on Tuesday, board staff called Air Canada’s safety culture “robust.”
Air Canada said the two pilots remain out of service.
Some Canadian aviation groups have complained that imposing strict limit on flying hours would make it more expensive to operate because additional pilots would be required.
A U.S. airline lobby group claimed that these regulations would bankrupt the industry after the government took action following a February 2009 crash in Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 49.
“There has been no sort of audit of these regulations and in fact the American airline industry has prospered with record profits since that time,” said Hogan.