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Flight safety oversight in Canada plummets, draft UN agency report finds

An airplane descends into the fog blanketing the region while on approach to land at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Sunday, November 26, 2023. A draft report from a United Nations agency gives Canada a C grade for flight safety and oversight, down from A+. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

MONTREAL — Canada has received a C grade on flight safety oversight — down from an A+ almost two decades ago and far below most of its peers — according to a draft report from a United Nations agency.

The confidential audit from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) obtained by The Canadian Press says the country has fallen precipitously to a score of 64 out of 100, with three areas of safety oversight in particular seeing a big drop-off: aircraft operations, airports and air navigation.

Canada's score topped 95 per cent in the UN body's previous report in 2005.

The UN body recommended that the federal government establish a system to lock in full regulatory compliance by airlines and airports, shore up certification related to dangerous goods and ensure proper training and fatigue management for air traffic controllers.

A shortage of the latter and a trend toward off-loading safety responsibilities from government to industry remain concerns across the continent, said Ross Aimer, CEO of California-based Aero Consulting Experts.

"Every other day you hear there's what we call a near miss. I don't like that term 'near miss'; I would like to call it a near collision," Aimer said.

In September, two Air Canada planes brushed each other on the ground at the Vancouver airport, tearing off parts of their wingtips in a low-speed collision.

In March, an air traffic controller cleared an Air Canada Rouge plane for takeoff from Sarasota, Fla., just as an American Airlines jet made its final approach on the same runway, prompting the American pilot to pull up abruptly — one of a half-dozen incidents of conflicting runway use the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board was investigating at the time.

However, the Canadian government stressed that the UN report was not a measure of the country's safety performance and that it did not note any issues requiring immediate action.

"ICAO has not identified any significant safety concerns with Canada’s civil aviation system, and we know our country’s air sector is among the safest in the world," said Laura Scaffidi, a spokeswoman for Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

University of Manitoba transport institute director Barry Prentice said Canada's flight safety record speaks for itself, with plane accident deaths down in recent years and no major commercial airline crashes in decades.

"What are the results? I haven't seen much in the nature of safety problems in the airline industry for some time," he said. "That's an indication the system is working well."

Last year, the number of air transportation accidents declined 43 per cent to 165 — a new 10-year low — from 291 in 2012, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

"Transport Canada is confident in the safety of Canada’s aviation system, and the department will welcome the opportunity to further improve our processes and framework to better align with ICAO (standards and practices)," department spokesman Hicham Ayoun said in an email.

The government had until Oct. 30 to respond to the agency's draft audit, and a final report is expected in the coming weeks.

The report comes amid an ongoing dearth of aviation employees that include air traffic controllers, pilots and baggage handlers, adding to the challenges facing the sector after it was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The total score measures a given country's "safety oversight capability" based on the UN agency's questionnaires, checklists and on-site visits to industry players, including Air Canada, Nav Canada and the Montreal airport.

Carried out between May 31 and June 14, the audit examines eight areas including legislation, licensing and accident investigations.

In those three categories, Canada notched scores between 67 and 83, though all were down by at least eight points from the previous safety audit.

It ranked below other G7 countries, except for the United Kingdom, in most categories, and also below a majority of the 38 states in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a club of economically developed countries.

Oversight of aircraft operations saw the biggest plunge, falling to a score of 23 from 88.

Aimer warned of governments' delegating oversight duties to airlines and manufacturers rather than shouldering responsibility for checks and safeguards themselves.

"It's almost like the fox guarding the henhouse. You can't be promoting aviation and yet policing it at the same time," he said.

Transport Canada's mandate is to "promote safe, secure, efficient and environmentally responsible transportation," the department's website states.

For years, Canada has required aviation organizations to comply with frameworks called "safety management systems" (SMS) laid out by the International Civil Aviation Organization. In 2007, Transport Canada said the sector "would henceforth be responsible for the proactive and systematic management of the risks that weigh on its activities, and that the primary tool used to do so would be the SMS, where possible," according to a Library of Parliament analysis in 2021.

Much of the UN agency's 23-page report zeroed in on "comprehensive procedures" and oversight mechanisms within government to ensure regulatory compliance.

Transport Canada said it regularly conducts thorough inspections and oversight activities" to make sure operators abide by the rules. "The department never hesitates to take appropriate actions," Ayoun said.

The International Civil Aviation Organization directed questions specific to Canada's results to the government.

"The Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme was created by state aviation regulators to help them prioritize their enhancements to their safety oversight abilities," agency spokesman William Raillant-Clark said in an email.

The agency has also agreed to carry out a new audit in 2025, "given the work Transport Canada has undertaken to be closer aligned with ICAO’s international standards," the department said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2023.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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