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Air Canada accused CUPE (which represents its flight attendants) of exploiting this week’s tragedy, and said the new ratio of flight attendants to seats is in line with international standards that foreign carriers have followed for years.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The case of a pilot believed to have deliberately crashed a Germanwings airliner, killing all 150 on board, is shining a spotlight on a cost-savings measure on Canadian airplanes that a union representing flight attendants says is a risk to public safety.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is drawing attention to exemptions granted by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in recent years that allow air carriers to reduce the minimum number of flight attendants on board aircraft.

The union noted that many Canadian airlines are only required to have one flight attendant for every 50 passenger seats, instead of one attendant for every 40 passengers. This allows carriers to keep fewer flight attendants on their payroll.

CUPE applauds Ms. Raitt's order this week requiring air carriers to have two crew members in the cockpit at all times, a measure that would require flight attendants to leave the passengers and enter the flight deck from time to time. This follows cockpit voice recordings in the Germanwings tragedy showing the pilot was locked out of the cockpit as the plane, under the control of the co-pilot, began the descent that led to the crash.

However, CUPE, which represents more than 10,000 flight attendants in Canada, said there are already too few flight attendants on board Canadian air carriers, and this new order could further deplete the numbers available to maintain safety if they are now enlisted to maintain the required numbers in the cockpit when a pilot steps out.

"If a flight attendant must be present in the flight deck to ensure the safety of passengers, there should also be a sufficient number of flight attendants in the rest of the airplane when an emergency situation occurs," said Michael Cournoyer, president of CUPE's airline division. "Sadly, this isn't the case today, and this problem will be compounded whenever a flight attendant is positioned in the flight deck."

CUPE represents flight attendants on Air Canada, Air Transat, Calm Air, Canadian North, Canjet, Cathay Pacific, First Air and Sunwing.

Air carriers note the flight attendant staffing rules don't always means less air crew. They said the new rules that are based on seats rather than passengers mean relatively empty flights today must have more attendants than under the old standard.

Air Canada accused the union of exploiting this week's tragedy, and said the new ratio of flight attendants to seats is in line with international standards that foreign carriers have followed for years.

"It is very disappointing and regrettable that CUPE is resorting to using the Germanwings tragedy in their ongoing campaign to prevent Canadian carriers from adopting international safety standards that have been well established for many years," Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said. "Air Canada is satisfied that having Canada move to the internationally accepted 1:50 standard is absolutely safe. We would never have sought the exemption if this was not the case. It is the standard and is recognized as safe in Europe and the United States for many years."

Canada's federal transport department said this week's order requiring two flight crew members in the cockpit at all times will not put undue stress on flight attendant staff. "Pilots rarely leave the flight deck and, when they do, it's for a very short period of time. There is no need to increase the number of cabin crew members to accommodate this new order," said Zach Segal, spokesman for Transport Canada.

WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer said the ratio of one flight attendant for every 50 seats is not a radical departure from convention. "We are disturbed to see that CUPE feels it is appropriate to raise the unspeakable tragedy of Germanwings flight 9525 in this context. Airlines around the world have operated safely at 1:50 for decades. Here in Canada, American carriers and 50-seat regional aircraft have also operated safely at that ratio for many years."

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