Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Ottawa, airlines weigh risks of hazardous goods on commercial flights

An Air Canada plane sits on the tarmac at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Air Canada says it operates 1,500 flights daily, carrying 20,000 shipments annually that contain some dangerous goods.


Compressed gas. Radioactive medical isotopes. Dry ice. Ammunition. On any given day, Canadians might travel in the company of those items on commercial flights.

Major airlines have long been in the business of transporting dangerous goods, but on Tuesday their safety practices were at the centre of a parliamentary study of Canada's transportation regime across all modes, including air.

On Tuesday, representatives from Air Canada, WestJet, Jazz Aviation and Air Transat testified before the transport committee, which had been tasked by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt with striking a wide-ranging study after a deadly train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que.

Story continues below advertisement

Tens of millions of dangerous-goods shipments are transported in Canada each year. While air transport is a small slice of the dangerous-goods game – less than 1 per cent, based on tonnage – more and more shipments are being moved across the country.

Air Canada alone says it operates 1,500 flights daily, carrying 20,000 shipments annually that contain some dangerous goods.

"It's everything from hairspray to a battery used for a mobility device," Samuel Elfassy, an Air Canada's senior director, said after testifying Tuesday.

Dangerous goods are divided into nine classes, including explosives, flammable liquids and radioactive materials. Federal legislation, which incorporates technical instructions from the International Civil Aviation Organization, regulates the transport of those goods. Transport Canada audits and inspects operators at airport ramps, check-in areas and cargo acceptance locations.

Mr. Elfassy said employees undergo rigorous dangerous-goods training, and noted that operators are required to deal only with licensed shippers. Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said across all the airline's shipments last year, it saw reportable incidents for 0.000146 per cent of them. "None of these were serious," he said.

The Canadian Transport Emergency Centre, a 24/7 advisory service staffed with bilingual scientists, fields thousands of calls annually related to dangerous goods, hundreds of which are in response to emergencies across all modes of transportation and in preparation for it. According to Transport Canada, the centre took 19 emergency calls related to air transport in 2011.

That year, the federal Auditor-General studied the transportation of dangerous goods and found Transport Canada lacked consistency in implementing compliance activities. It also found the department hadn't ensured corrective action following noncompliance.

Story continues below advertisement

Last year Ms. Raitt asked the committee to consider whether the Safety Management System regime needs to be adjusted to "provide greater focus on the transportation of dangerous goods." (Since 2008, the government has required air operators whose planes carry 20 or more passengers to develop in-house safety management systems.)

The National Airlines Council of Canada, which also testified, said it's confident the SMS regime is effective. The council said it believes WestJet is its only member that has chosen not to carry dangerous goods. A WestJet spokesman said that simply wasn't part of the airline's business model when it launched.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Raitt said the minister will examine the committee's findings once the study is completed.

Report an error Licensing Options

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨