OTTAWA - An Air Canada jet refuelled with its engines running and more than 100 passengers aboard, then took off with its wings sheathed in ice, a House of Commons committee heard Monday.
The Airbus had been diverted on a flight to Winnipeg from Toronto and landed in Grand Forks, N.D., without the necessary equipment to restart its engines, the Canadian Federal Pilots Association told the transport committee.
Association officials, who represent licensed pilot aviation inspectors, warned of problems with new federal rules requiring airlines to do their own safety monitoring. They called for a public inquiry into aviation safety.
They came armed with a litany of horror stories, including planes patched together with duct tape and illegal parts as, well as improperly trained pilots and pilots flying without licences.
In the Grand Forks incident, the Airbus landed late at night. The airport was all but closed, including U.S. customs offices, which prevented passengers from leaving the plane, the officials said.
They said the plane left without de-icing, even after a veteran Air Canada captain who was a passenger, repeatedly warned crew that the wings were covered in potentially lethal ice.
"That (Airbus) pilot decided to become a test pilot with 100 passengers and crew aboard," said union spokesman Jim Thompson. "It is very dangerous."
Both Oct. 9 incidents involving the same flight violated Canadian law, the union said, and are part of a body of evidence that the new regime, called Safety Management Systems (SMS), is not working.
Air Canada issued a press release calling the union's allegations "false and misleading." It said the flight crew did a visual inspection of the wings before take-off and saw no icing.
As for refueling under power with passengers aboard: "While Air Canada is not certified by the regulator for this procedure, the aircraft manufacturer's specifications allow fueling with the engines running. As an additional safeguard emergency vehicles were present."
Capt. Daniel Slunder, the union's national chair, said the passenger-pilot filed an incident report to Transport Canada, which in turn handed it over to Air Canada. No action has been taken, he said.
"Compare this to the recent destination over-flight incident in the U.S. where the FAA took action against the pilots within five days," Slunder told the committee.
"The difference between the two countries is Transport Canada's version of SMS and the degree to which it has weakened safety oversight in Canada."
Transport Canada issued a response late Monday, stating that the department "continues to have full responsibility for aviation safety oversight and continues to conduct and take enforcement action when necessary."
In fact, said Slunder, there has not been a single enforcement action against a large commercial air carrier in two years, despite the fact Transport Canada is aware of serious safety violations.
The inspectors back a federal government decision to stall self-monitoring in the industry, but they fear a partially implemented regime has compromised safety at the big airlines.
Delaying the SMS roll-out to aircraft manufacturers, helicopter companies and smaller airlines is a good idea, said the group.
But it added that the federal decision, which aims to give the industry more time to prepare and provide more training to frontline workers, is undermining safety at air carriers such as Air Canada and Westjet.
"This postponement is absolutely the right thing to do," said Slunder. "The problems this decision acknowledges are undermining the safety of the big airlines. ... As a result, we no longer are confident the major carriers are compliant with safety regulations."
Transport Canada imposed the self-inspection and enforcement regime on the big airlines in 2005.
The SMS allows them to self-monitor and self-enforce compliance with safety regulations, with little intervention from the regulator.
Ottawa hoped the regime, with less emphasis on penalties, would encourage the development of a safety culture within the industry and provide authorities with more data to better formulate safety regulations and other measures.
But the association says rather than developing a safety culture, the airlines are cutting corners.
An internal departmental email dated Nov. 13 and obtained by the union cites "common concerns" about SMS among Transport Canada inspection staff.
The memo predicts introduction of SMS in air-taxi and commuter aviation will be delayed until at least January 2011.
Some aviation inspectors have complained that assessment standards are non-existent under the new regime or applied in a patchwork, that reporting systems are dead-ends which produce no remedial action, and that inspectors are inadequately trained and many are assigned SMS duties for which they are not qualified.
Some aviation experts have been critical of the regime because Ottawa has used it as an excuse to cancel key aviation audit and inspection programs.
"I regret to inform you that TC aviation inspectors now spend more time pushing paper than inspecting airplanes," Slunder told the committee. "Without oversight of operations, inspectors cannot say with certainty that airlines are safely in compliance - we just don't know."
The union contends Transport Canada has abandoned both regular and surprise inspections, as well as fines and sanctions, in violation of International Civil Aviation Organization requirements.
It is urging Transport Canada to restore surprise audit and inspection programs immediately and wants the government to ensure "adequate resources to oversee aviation safety."