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New air regs 'a one-size-fits-all solution' that will hurt northern communities

'Some estimates suggest Canada has hundreds of job vacancies for experienced aviators and the new regulations are compounding those shortages driving many pilots to more lucrative jobs in the US and elsewhere'
The new regulations are being phased in at the same time as Canada faces a growing shortage of pilots.

A northern air services lobby group says new Transport Canada regulations will cause major community and safety concerns if they are not deferred.

"As Transport Canada dithers on addressing regulatory issues, thousands of northern communities and businesses are paying a heavy price, some losing their livelihoods while others struggle with exponential cost increases and supply chain insecurities," says the Canada-wide Coalition of Northern Air Services and Stakeholders (CNASS). 

Since 2020, Transport Canada has been phasing in new anti-fatigue regulations, the most recent of which was implemented on December 12, 2022 affecting 703 and 704 designated aircraft that primarily provide services to remote communities as well as resource-based industries, tourism, emergency services, firefighting, agriculture and more

“704 carriers” includes multi-engine aircraft that have a takeoff weight of 19,000 pounds or more and a seating configuration for 10 to 19 passengers. "703 carriers are single-engine aircraft or multi-engine aircraft that have a maximum takeoff weight of 19,000 pounds or less and a seating configuration of nine or fewer passengers. They are often referred to as air taxi operators.

"The new regulations are being phased in at the same time as Canada faces a growing shortage of pilots," points out CNASS. "Some estimates suggest Canada has hundreds of job vacancies for experienced aviators and the new regulations are compounding those shortages driving many pilots to more lucrative jobs in the US and elsewhere."

“No one is saying we shouldn’t have good safety regulations in place, but what Transport Canada has imposed is a one-size-fits-all solution that just isn’t workable in all sectors, particularly in Canada’s northern and remote communities," explains Glenn Priestley, Executive Director of the Northern Air Transport Association (NATA). "Transport Canada failed to adequately consult service providers and stakeholders, and, had they done so, they would have understood that the new regulations are, in fact, creating their own safety concerns,”

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation notes its recent meetings and letters of concern have failed to initiate "meaningful response" from Transport Canada.

“The majority of communities across Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) are solely dependent on air travel for access and essential services like policing, social services, and deliveries of medical supplies, building materials, food, and drinking water," adds Deputy Grand Chief Victor Linklater. "There are some exemptions, but we are greatly concerned that these new regulations will exacerbate the pilot shortage and put additional strain on those who are already struggling to provide service to our communities. Instead of unilaterally imposing unworkable regulations that will create further hardship for our First Nations, the federal government should be working with us to strengthen vital air service to northern and remote communities.”

Helicopter services are also in the same regulatory boat.

Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) President and CEO Trevor Mitchell says, “We’ve been fighting for eight years to be heard by Transport Canada. The fatigue science, as interpreted by Transport Canada, is creating its own safety issues including forced reliance on less experienced pilots.”

Further, he notes the regulations are convoluted and the Transportation agency appears incapable of reliably incorporating them into their own process and enforcement protocols.

Laurie Marcil, Executive Director of the Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters Association feels the impact of the Federal regulations is significant and far-reaching with remote tourism seeing a significant reduction in air services, cancelled or delayed flights, frustrated clientele, and ballooning expenses.

“This, coming after three years of pandemic restrictions that prevented any revenue generation for remote tourism operators, it’s piling hurt upon hurt”, says Marcil.

From the perspective of air service operators, Kelly Culhane, of Hawk Air in Ontario, responded to a survey issued by CNASS noting, “The new regulations are forcing us to hire more pilots to do the same job we’ve done safely for years. Hiring any experienced pilot is a challenge, to say the least. We’ve been looking for over six months with no luck, and the reality is that we’ve had to reduce the number of flights and shut down services entirely for a day every week.”

The same problems are plaguing service providers across Canada and affecting mining and exploration companies.

"In an effort to address the growing number of concerns, both NATA and HAC have been working with internationally recognized sleep and fatigue experts with numerous proposals and solutions submitted to Transport Canada. To date, those challenges remain unaddressed," adds Priestley.

The northern air services season opened May 1, CNASS wrote Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu on May 1 requesting an urgent and immediate need to defer or exempt northern air services from the new regs.

"To date, the coalition has not had a response from any of the government agencies, nor has the request to meet garnered a response," says a news release.

BayToday contacted Transport Canada for comment.

Senior Communications Advisor Hicham Ayoun, in an emailed response, says the government recognizes how crucial regional and northern air carriers are to connecting and serving remote communities across the country.

"The nature of work in the aviation transportation sector makes workers particularly vulnerable to risks associated with performance and alertness, and the hazards associated with fatigue," he wrote.

"The regulations were developed in response to a Transportation Safety Board (TSB) Watchlist Item that identified fatigue in flight crew (pilots) as a significant safety risk. The updated regulations were published in the Canada Gazette, in 2018 and gradually came into force in 2020 for large operators (airlines) and 2022 for smaller operators (air taxi and commuters). The TSB has identified fatigue as a factor in 24 of its aviation investigations – 12 as a direct causal or contributory factor, and 12 where it was a risk factor. This list includes four accidents involving commercial aircraft where fatigue was considered contributory."

Ayoun says the amendments made to the regulations contribute to reducing flight crew member fatigue, in addition to allowing Canada to meet its international obligations in terms of standards and recommended practices.

"These regulations introduce new prescribed flight and duty time limits. They are based on the most recent scientific principles and are meant to strengthen the safety of aviation workers and the traveling public by addressing gaps respecting flight crew fatigue management."

Ayoun added that Transport Canada invited stakeholders to take part in consultations at all stages of the regulatory process since 2011.

"The Northern Air Transport Association (NATA) proposed a number of changes as part of that consultation and several made it into the final regulation published in 2018."

Air operators wishing to operate flights that vary from the new rules can use a Fatigue Risk Management System.

"To do so, the operator would send a notice of intent which allows them three years to build a safety case that demonstrates to the Minister that the levels of a flight crew member fatigue and alertness associated with conducting a variance flight can be managed such that they are not greater than if the flight was conducted under the prescriptive flight and duty regulations."

If the Minister approves the safety case, the operator may continue to operate the flight, subject to conditions and oversight from Transport Canada Civil Aviation, indefinitely. 

"Transport Canada is aware that there is a shortage of pilots in Canada and elsewhere in the world. The department is modernizing services affecting pilot licensing and training and is modernizing regulations for personnel qualifications and Approved Training Organizations in response to industry demands," explained Ayoun.

"These efforts should increase the competitiveness of the Canadian flight training industry as well as improve the viability of aviation careers to address any shortages. Transport Canada is working to leverage and expand existing training programs and to modernize regulations to better address barriers to skills development and training. This work includes research into best practices in competency and evidence-based training and the integration of new learning technologies, as well as proposed regulatory enhancements for approved training organizations."