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British Columbia Transport Canada proposes life-jacket requirement for float plane passengers

Float planes pass each other in Vancouver in this 2012 file photo.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Two decades after the Transportation Safety Board first said those on board commercial float planes should wear personal flotation devices, such as life jackets, Transport Canada is acting on the recommendation.

Transport Canada has released proposed regulations that would require passengers and pilots of commercial float planes to wear flotation devices.

In a posting in the Canada Gazette this past weekend, Transport Canada said those involved in float-plane crashes might not have time to locate and put on a flotation device, or they might overlook doing so before leaving a sinking aircraft. Current regulations say a personal flotation device must be available for each person on board a float plane, but it does not need to be worn.

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Bill Yearwood, regional manager of aviation for the Transportation Safety Board, said his organization first recommended the wearing of personal flotation devices on float planes in 1994, when it released a report that analyzed crashes over a 15-year period. That report said flotation devices should be worn during the taxiing, takeoff, approach and landing phases of a flight.

In its notice, Transport Canada also cited a 2009 crash off Saturna Island that killed six people. When the TSB released its report into that crash, the agency again said occupants of commercial float planes should wear flotation devices.

"We want to find people and the chance of their survival without the life jacket is very poor," Mr. Yearwood said in an interview Tuesday.

The Transport Canada posting did not mention the 1994 TSB report, though it did reference the 2011 report. In an e-mail statement Tuesday, Transport Canada said it has been actively working with industry members.

"In 2011, a joint Transport Canada-industry working group studied the complex issues identified in the TSB recommendations," the statement read.

"Since then, the department has been working on developing the new regulations, which take the diverse nature of Canada's seaplane industry into account."

The public has one month to respond to the proposed regulations, which could also make training float-plane pilots to exit an aircraft underwater mandatory.

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The TSB's call for the wearing of flotation devices on float planes has been met with opposition from some operators. Harbour Air, which bills itself as the world's largest float-plane airline, has said wearing the devices could pose an additional safety risk if a passenger inflated the device too quickly and was unable to get out of the aircraft.

Harbour Air, in a statement Tuesday, said it is reviewing the proposed regulations.

"Harbour Air currently places [personal flotation devices] in protective pouches in an accessible area underneath or adjacent to all passengers' seats," the statement read.

"This protocol ensures [the devices] are both available and functional as current regulations require."

Transport Canada said it "is of the opinion that although there have been incidents where passengers have inflated their flotation devices before getting out of the aeroplane, the possible occurrences of this happening can be addressed by focused briefings before flight."

The 2009 crash involved a float plane operated by Seair Seaplanes. The company did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed regulations.

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Kirsten Stevens, whose husband was one of five people killed in a 2005 float-plane crash and who has advocated for the wearing of flotation devices on the planes, said of Transport Canada's announcement: "It's about bloody time."

Ms. Stevens said her husband and the other men were able to get out of the aircraft, but none was wearing a flotation device. She said her husband's body was the only one that was found.

"If they had been wearing personal flotation devices, they'd be alive. Or at least we would know what happened to them all. In this case, we have no idea," she said in an interview.

Ms. Stevens said she was pleased to see Transport Canada also propose mandatory underwater egress training for pilots of commercially operated float planes – another issue she had raised.

The proposed regulations, if finalized, are not expected to come into effect for one year to give businesses time to comply.

Editor's note: A previous headline on this story incorrectly said float plane passengers are now required to wear life jackets. In fact, Transport Canada has proposed such a requirement but it has not yet been put into place.

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