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New rules for aviation safety a flight plan to disaster, critics warn

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Proponents predict it will make air travel in Canada safer than ever. Critics call it a flight plan for disaster.

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Proponents predict it will make air travel in Canada safer than ever. Critics call it a flight plan for disaster.

A controversial new regulatory system that forces the aviation industry to enforce its own safety standards has some accusing Ottawa of abdicating responsibility for ensuring the safety of Canadian passengers, citing tragic experiences in Canada's rail industry as cautionary tales.

For nearly a decade, rail safety in Canada has been governed by a so-called safety management system. Companies are responsible for devising their own safety plans according to regulatory standards and must ensure that their day-day operations conform.

During that period, however, several accidents took place that were blamed on faulty rail-safety systems, including a runaway train in 2006 that killed two railway workers.

"It's like the fox running the henhouse," said Virgil Moshansky, a former judge whose investigation into the deadly Air Ontario crash in 1989 in the northwestern Ontario town of Dryden, led to major changes in Canada's aviation industry.

"It seems that Transport Canada, or the government, or both, need a major disaster to happen before they take action."

Moshansky headed up the inquiry that probed the crash that killed 24 people when ice buildup on the wings sent the plane careening into the ground, where it burst into flames and broke apart.

As part of the changes, a federal program to audit airline safety procedures has been cancelled and Transport Canada intends to stop regulating the frequency of inspections.

Transport Canada inspectors won't enforce safety regulations for companies with their own safety management systems. They will simply inspect safety reports written by the companies themselves.

Federal legislation that would have enshrined the changes into law - opposition parties aggressively opposed the bill - died when last year's federal election was called. The changes will instead be made through regulations, which do not require the approval of Parliament.

That will leave it up to aviation companies to devise their own safety policies, identify risks and make employees aware of the need for safety.

Proponents of the safety-management doctrine say that's the point.

By requiring airlines to create and police their own safety systems, with regulatory authorities as the backup, safety measures are enhanced, rather than diminished, they argue.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency considered the international authority on civil aviation, notes that when such a system is working properly, it adds an extra layer of safety.

The ICAO has developed safety-system guidelines for nearly 200 member countries, including Canada, which is considered one of the leaders in its implementation.

Under the plan, operators, manufacturers, regulatory bodies and investigative agencies work together in a proactive, preventative system at all levels of an operation.

In Canada, large airline operators, their maintenance companies, principal airports and air traffic controllers already operate that way, said Chris Day, press secretary for Transportation Minister John Baird.

Small operators, their maintenance providers, flight training operations, companies that certify aircraft and aircraft makers will soon follow, with Transport Canada expecting the system to be fully implemented by 2015.

"This is about promoting safety, limiting risk, preventing incidents before they happen," said Day.

The regulations are being changed to match what's happening already, he added.

But even as the airline industry grows, there are fewer and fewer government inspectors.

"They (Transport Canada) have delegated the oversight function and enforcement function to the airlines themselves," Moshansky said.

Critics agree that airlines and railways must take principal responsibility for making sure passengers and crew are safe. But they also need the support of Transport Canada inspections and audits, they say.

The unions that represent Canada's inspectors say the system is being used as an excuse to reduce their numbers and to remain at arm's length from liability after accidents.

Kerry Williams, national vice-president with the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, said there are 130 inspector positions vacant in Canada.

"This is one way to eliminate those vacancies in the stroke of a pen."

The number of inspectors over the last few years has dropped by 15 per cent while the aviation industry has grown by 50 per cent, reducing the role of inspectors to little more than "box tickers," he added.

Greg Holbrook, the chairman of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, which represents pilot inspectors, said the government saw the system as a money-saver from the start.

"Really, what (this) is all about is about getting Transport (Canada) off the hook," Holbrook said.

"They haven't been able to do their job for a number of years because they don't have enough people and they don't have enough money to do it."

A Transport Canada plan backs up that claim.

Written eight years ago, the document says relying on companies for safety systems cuts costs and jobs and results in less "regulatory burden, Crown liability, oversight requirements."

Said Moshansky: "It seems that safety always gives way to the bottom line with Transport Canada. There are countless examples of this."

Baird himself wasn't available for an interview, but Transport Canada spokesman Brad McNulty said the agency is confident the program will only improve safety.

"Transport Canada is confident (safety management systems) will help save lives by preventing accidents," he said in an email to The Canadian Press.

That confidence isn't borne out by the experience of the rail industry.

The Transportation Safety Board, which investigates rail, air and marine incidents, has cited several accidents that were a direct result of a breakdown in that industry's self-managed safety system.

Tom Dodd and Don Falkner clung to a runaway CN train equipped with ineffective brakes as it plunged over a British Columbia cliff three years ago, taking them to their deaths.

The safety board concluded earlier this year that the choice of an engine with brakes not meant for mountainous terrain was made for "financial reasons, rather than safety reasons," contrary to the railway's own policy.

In August 2005, a defective rail set off an environmental disaster in Wabamun Lake west of Edmonton when 700,000 litres of thick crude oil spilled into the lake. The board criticized CN's rail maintenance and its dangerous goods emergency response plan in a report on the derailment.

Just days later, a train derailed along the Cheakamus River near Squamish, B.C., spilling caustic soda into the river, killing hundreds of thousands of fish. Again, the board blamed violations of the safety management system.

CN's policies were also cited as a factor in a fiery wreck in August 2007 in Prince George, B.C., and in a January 2007 derailment in Montmagny, Que., when four cars containing sulphuric acid derailed, but didn't spill.

A review of the industry's safety management policy released in 2008 concluded that the implementation of the policy had been inconsistent across the country and said Transport Canada hadn't dedicated enough resources to oversee it.

Federal auditor general Sheila Fraser also warned the government in a 2008 report that Transport Canada's transition to aviation safety management systems "had several weaknesses."

Fraser said the department didn't forecast expected costs for the transition, document potential risks or suggest mitigating actions and had no plan in place to evaluate the impact. She also warned there was no strategy in place to hire specialized people with skills gained on the job.

As a result of the recommendations in the rail safety review, McNulty said Transport Canada would be hiring 20 more inspectors for rail over the next three years.

While there are only a few dozen rail companies operating in Canada, there are more than 2,300 air operators certified to fly here.

Emilie Therien, past president of the Canada Safety Council, said the safety change in the airline industry will make Transport Canada a "toothless tiger" when it comes to enforcing safety.

"The safety level established by the carrier - whether it's rail or air - may not be the same one that was established by Transport Canada before," he said in an interview.

Hugh Danford, a former civil aviation inspector for the department, agreed, saying aviation travel is about profit and there's always a balance between money and safety.

"And that's why the (safety management system) won't work because they're putting that balance in the hands of the people who profit."

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