The Conservative government is considering letting air operators fly with fewer flight attendants, drawing backlash from airline crews who say passenger safety is taking a back seat to corporate profits.
At a Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council meeting in Ottawa on Thursday, Transport Canada officials fielded pointed questions and emotional commentary denouncing a proposal allowing airlines to choose between the current ratio of one flight attendant for every 40 passengers or a new ratio of one for every 50 passenger seats.
The public consultation was a chance for stakeholders across the country to weigh in on a 15-page notice of proposed amendment, which included several mitigation measures aimed at ensuring the 1:50 ratio produced what Transport Canada's director of standards called an "acceptable level of safety."
But it also proved an opportunity for flight attendants, MPs and union members to vent their frustrations at the consultation process and, most significantly, the proposed ratio change.
NDP MP Mike Sullivan, who is on the Transport committee, said he only heard about the meeting through flight attendants, and questioned whether people with disabilities would be negatively impacted. CUPE countered the 15-page notice with a 57-page PowerPoint presentation making its case for why the 1:50 ratio will put passengers at risk. And several flight attendants said no matter what mitigations are put in place there's no way to replace a trained flight attendant.
"By reducing the amount of flight attendants, you're increasing our risk on board," one Air Canada flight attendant told the packed Ottawa meeting room, to uproarious applause.
Speaking with reporters on a conference call from Germany, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said airlines had increasingly been asking for an exemption to fly under the 1:50 ratio and that she didn't want to effectively create a new rule piecemeal. She also noted that the U.S. and Europe currently operate under the 1:50 ratio, leaving her comfortable with the proposed new standard. The timing of the final decision depends on when Transport Canada officials report back to her with their final recommendations.
Already, certain aircraft configured for up to 50 passenger seats are allowed to have a single flight attendant, and several carriers, including WestJet, which has been flying under the 1:50 ratio since last fall, have successfully applied for exemptions.
Others, such as Air Canada, have since asked to follow suit, arguing the move would maintain safety levels, wouldn't result in layoffs and wouldn't apply to international flights using wide-body aircraft. Under the proposed changes, wide-body aircraft would have to be staffed by a flight attendant in case of an evacuation.
The proposed ratio change has over the years gleaned mixed reviews, even within Transport Canada. The issued flared and gained traction in 2002, but in 2006 Transport Canada decided not to pursue the change.
Christopher Dann, a Transport Canada safety inspector, said the safety level afforded by the 1:50 passenger seat ratio will never be equivalent to that of the 1:40 passengers ratio. "It can't be equivalent," he said, adding that the mitigations will help enhance the safety level.
Proponents say the 1:50 would put Canadian operators on a level playing field with U.S. and European carriers, that it wouldn't affect safety and that it could reduce fares. The National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents the country's largest passenger air carriers, said in a statement it supports the proposed ratio because it will align Canada with its international competitors without compromising safety.
With a report from Greg Keenan