Skip to main content

The federal government is combating the problem of cockpit fatigue by reducing pilot hours, but carriers say the proposed new rules ignore the Canadian reality and could force cuts in service to remote northern communities that depend heavily on air transport.

The Air Transport Association of Canada is asking Transportation Minister Marc Garneau to put a hold on the implementation of the regulations that will dictate how long pilots can work and be in the air until there has been more consultation.

The association says the government is adopting a “one-size-fits-all” approach that will not work in the vast and sparsely populated Canadian North where flight crews who have reached the limit of their flying hours could be stranded in communities without accommodation or hangars to park their plane in sub-zero temperatures.

And, it says, with independent estimates suggesting the new regulations will require 26-per-cent more pilots across the industry at a time when there is already a shortage, the men and women currently flying the northern routes will gravitate to the larger players in the south. That will leave northern planes without flight crews or with inexperienced pilots.

“The effect of this is not to be underestimated. I think it’s going to result in the withdrawal of service from some communities,” said Fred Jones, the president of the Helicopter Association of Canada.

In a best-case scenario, said Mr. Jones, the cost of living in the North, where prices are already higher than elsewhere in Canada, will go up significantly. In a worst-case scenario, he said, the aircraft will be grounded.

A Transport Canada spokeswoman said in an e-mail on Friday that the government will try to mitigate challenges the industry may have in implementing the new rules. The department recognizes the important role played by airlines and pilots in Canadian aviation, she said, and is aware of the problems faced by the aviation sector in recruiting pilots and other critical personnel.

But Liberals in the Yukon are so concerned they proposed a resolution at the party’s policy convention in April asking Transport Canada to postpone the new regulations until a comprehensive safety review had been conducted and northern operators had been consulted.

Steve Hankirk, the president of Canadian North airlines and chair of the Air Transport Association of Canada, said there is no question that the rules around flight and duty time are outdated and must be changed.

But the regulations Transport Canada has forwarded “are more for an Air Canada or WestJet type of airline that lands in big cities, can overnight the airplanes there and has the infrastructure to keep the aircraft there,” Mr. Hankirk said.

The regulations were based on the rules that exist in Europe where there is a completely different type of flying environment, he said. The distances between European destinations are shorter, the aviation infrastructure less rustic, the weather is more temperate, and there are fewer small carriers.

“We do feel that things need to change,” Mr. Hankirk said, “but consult with us. There has been no legitimate consultation process.”

The new regulations have been drafted but not finalized and are expected to take effect later this year.

They would cut the maximum hours between the time a pilot reports for duty and the time the plane’s engines are turned off at the end the flight from 14 to nine or 13, depending on the time of day of takeoff. The government says 14 consecutive hours of duty is considered too long for maintaining adequate performance.

And pilots agree.

Greg McConnell, chair of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, said pilots are falling asleep in the cockpit.

“I have done it myself,” Mr. McConnell said. “You are a normal human being and sometimes you don’t think that you’re tired.”

Small planes that accommodate nine or fewer passengers, which are common in the North, account for 10 times more accidents than other types of planes, he said. “So, yes, there will be some pain associated with [the new regulations] but if the result is less crashes, less lives lost, then that is a good thing.”

But Glenn Priestley, executive director of the Northern Air Transport Association, said it is critical that the new rules are realistic and work for the northern operations’ realities.

For instance, he said, a medevac flight may only require a couple of hours of flying time. But, if a plane lands in a northern community and the crew then spends several hours waiting for doctors to stabilize a patient and get him or her to the airport, the new rules may prevent the pilot from taking off.

“This could have a very dramatic effect on our ability to provide essential services,” Mr. Priestley said. “We need this process to stop so that we can make sure we understand what the impact will be.”