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An Air Canada flight attendant makes her way to the departures gate at Toronto Pearson Airport in this file photo.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

Canadians will be put at risk if the federal government moves ahead with plans to allow airlines the flexibility to use fewer flight attendants on certain aircraft, the country's largest union says.

Ahead of a Transport Canada meeting in Ottawa on Thursday, CUPE airline division president Michel Cournoyer told reporters Canadians could find themselves traveling as soon as this summer with fewer flight attendants on board – a regulatory change that could leave emergency exits unstaffed on certain aircrafts on airlines that opt for the new ratio.

"Since Transport Canada is now willing to take a chance on passenger safety, we think it is time for the House of Commons standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities to launch a public inquiry of a proposed regulatory change that will put airline passengers at risk," he said before the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council meeting, which the Transport Canada director of standards said could get "messy" because of the number of people and regions hoping to weigh in on various proposed amendments at the day-long consultation.

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Airline representatives, flight attendants, union heads, pilots and MPs were expected to be among those who descended on the at times heated meeting in Ottawa, some by teleconference from cities such as Calgary and Toronto, and dozens others in person. The meeting, led by Transport Canada officials, including Director of Standards Aaron McCrorie and Safety Inspector Christopher Dann, kicked off around 11 a.m. EST and was slated to wrap up at about 5 p.m.

The special technical meeting was called to discuss a proposed amendment to Canadian Aviation Regulations that would allow airlines to choose between the current ratio of one flight attendant for every 40 passengers – a standard determined in 1968 – or a new ratio of one attendant for every 50 passenger seats. Both ratios would still come with a set of additional requirements that in effect dictate a minimum staffing level based on, among other factors, the aircraft type.

A number of other changes, for example around flight attendant training and evacuation demonstrations, were also among the proposed amendments to ne discussed Thursday.

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 October of 2013, 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, where each exit would, under the proposed changes, have to be staffed by a flight attendant in case of an evacuation.

The proposed changes, outlined in a 15-page notice of amendment, have over the years gleaned mixed reviews, even within Transport Canada. After receiving a 2002 industry request to allow the 1:50 option, Transport Canada did a risk assessment that looked at international regulations and passenger safety.

The conclusion was that the 1:50 ratio provided an acceptable level of safety, but it was ultimately decided that only the 1:40 ratio provided the consistent level of safety Canadians had become accustomed. In 2006, Transport Canada decided not to pursue the change.

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This latest resurgence of the issue, prompted by industry requests for the ratio change, comes less than a month after a survey of Canada's professional aviation inspectors showed the vast majority feel travelers are vulnerable to a major aviation accident under Transport Canada's current safety regime. It also comes at a time when travelers are still waiting for the federal government to develop a passengers' bill of rights, an idea once floated by the Conservatives but as of earlier this year nowhere on the horizon.

Proponents of the change say it would put Canadian operators on a level playing field with U.S. and European carriers, who fly in and out of Canada under the 1:50 ratio, that it wouldn't affect safety and that it could reduce fares. But opponents say allowing airlines to reduce the number of attendants onboard would negatively impact disabled passengers and is a direct threat to passenger safety – that airlines are effectively putting profit over the well-being of their customers.

Opposition to the move has been playing out not just in the court of public opinion, but also at Federal Court, where CUPE mounted a legal challenge last fall against the Conservative government's decision to grant Sunwing an exemption. CUPE represents 10,000 flight attendants employed by Sunwing, Air Canada, Air Transat, Calm Air, Canadian North, Canjet, Cathay Pacific and First Air.

Mr. Cournoyer said the issue at hand isn't layoffs but rather safety. When asked how many attendants under CUPE might lose his or her job, he estimated roughly 600. He said he doesn't have an estimate on how many millions the airlines could stand to save if they opted for the ratio that staffs fewer attendants.

At his press conference, he gave the example of an Airbus 320, which has 140 seats. Under the current ratio, the airline would be staffed with four flight attendants, meaning there would be one attendant for every exit. Under the 1:50 ratio, there would be three flight attendants, leaving one door unstaffed. He confirmed the change is only slated to apply to narrow body aircraft, and noted that while the U.S. uses the 1:50 ratio, Australia and New Zealand fly under a 1:36 ratio.

The National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents the country's largest passenger air carriers, said in a statement Thursday it supports the 1:50 flight attendant ratio because it will harmonize rules with the international standard and align Canada with the U.S. and Europe.

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"Safe and secure air travel is of the utmost importance to the member airlines of the NACC and this move to standardize Canadian regulations will in no way compromise the safety of passengers and crew," the council said.

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