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Report On Business New pilot-fatigue rules criticized by unions, airline industry

The proposed federal regulations would cut the number of consecutive hours pilots are allowed to fly from 14 to between nine and 13, depending on what time of day the flight takes off.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

New rules to combat airline pilot fatigue are being attacked from both sides, with industry advocates predicting an expensive pilot shortage and pilots unions saying the regulations don't go far enough to protect safety.

The proposed federal regulations, published on Friday, would cut the number of consecutive hours pilots are allowed to fly from 14 to between nine and 13, depending on what time of day the flight takes off. The regulations would also increase the amount of rest time pilots must take between flights and reduce the annual number of hours pilots can fly to 1,000 from 1,200, bringing Canada more in line with international aviation standards.

"Pilots, who are responsible for safe operations, face long workdays, often during night time or early morning hours. Working multiple long duty days consecutively without adequate rest and restoration will degrade human performance over time," Transport Canada writes in the Canada Gazette.

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The regulations' impact on the airline industry may be significant. Transport Canada estimates the changes will cost airlines about $338-million over the next 15 years, "mainly due to the changes to flight crew scheduling requirements." On the opposite side, passengers, flight crew and air operators will save an estimated $314-million over the same period of time because of "the potential reduction in accidents," the ministry adds.

The federal government has been working on some form of fatigue regulation for more than five years. The result, however, seems to have satisfied no one.

"We're already facing a shortage of pilots in this country, and this is going to be pushing it even further," said John McKenna, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, an industry lobby group that represents 35 airlines. "That could have safety impacts if … airlines are pushing to train people maybe faster than they should."

The new regulations are also being roundly criticized by pilots unions who say the reduction in flight time is not enough.

"The measures fall far short of established science," said Milt Isaacs, CEO of the Air Canada Pilots Association, in a news release from the Safer Skies coalition lobby group, which represents more than 8,000 passenger and cargo pilots in Canada. "NASA's recommendation of no more than 10 hours of duty time at night (8.5 hours of flight time) is quite clear, and yet the government has ignored facts and science … in favour of regulations that favour operator commercial concerns."

The new regulations will increase the number of pilots needed by 30 per cent, Mr. McKenna said, explaining his organization's opposition to the new rules. This staffing crunch will be felt most acutely by small and medium-size airlines, which will see their pilots poached by larger carriers, he added.

Aaron Speer, vice-president of flight operations with First Air, a 17-plane carrier that services communities across Northern Canada, said he's already seen an exodus of his pilots to larger airlines.

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"That pipeline out has been speeding up for past year-and-a-half and the pipeline in is getting smaller," Mr. Speer said. With the new regulations, "the only real option is to add about 15 per cent to maintain our current schedule. … Once you add the number of pilots I'm losing, I'm looking at a 25-per-cent turnover."

The costs associated with increased staffing could also change the routes that regional airlines, such as First Air, can fly profitably.

"Some of these routes are already not profitable as it is," Mr. McKenna said. "If you have to double up the crew to service them because you don't have enough flying time for one crew to do it, then you're going to reconsider that route all together."

He added that seasonal carriers, especially in the helicopter industry, could be hit particularly hard given their reliance on short but intense seasons resupplying camps and mines.

From the pilot union's perspective, questions about profitability need to take a back seat to the more pressing safety concerns. Mr. Isaacs said a separate e-mail to The Globe and Mail that even with the proposed reductions, Canadian pilots will still "work more hours in a week and month than any jurisdiction in the world."

That means the status quo of overworked pilots will remain. "By way of example, a Rouge pilot could be required to fly from Vancouver to Calgary to Frankfurt, layover in Frankfurt and then fly back to Calgary, then Edmonton and finally return to Vancouver, have no days off at home, then do it again," he said.

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Once the regulations come into force, scheduled for 2018, large carriers will have one year to comply, while smaller carriers will have up to four years.

"A number of the changes proposed are already aligned with our own rules and the direction our system is heading," WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart said. "For instance, we have already implemented changes to our scheduling rules ahead of these proposed changes.

"The amended regulations proposed by Transport Canada are expected to increase our costs despite the fact that we have been pro-actively anticipating some of the changes that have been discussed for several years."

Air Canada and Air Transat both responded to requests for comment by saying only that the companies are reviewing the proposed regulations.

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