HAC: flight and duty regulations a ‘catastrophe’ for helicopter operators

It’s been eight days since Transport Canada unveiled its new flight and duty time regulations on Dec. 12, 2018.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada quickly applauded the announcement, noting it has identified fatigue as a contributing factor or a risk in at least 34 aviation occurrences since the early 1990s. In October 2018, the agency added fatigue management to its Watchlist 2018, a collection of the most pressing issues impacting transportation safety.

Helicopter Association of Canada president Fred Jones said helicopters is probably the industry segment that will be hardest hit by new flight and duty time regulations. Bill Campbell Photo
Helicopter Association of Canada president Fred Jones said helicopters is probably the industry segment that will be hardest hit by new flight and duty time regulations. Bill Campbell Photo
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However, most Canadian aviation associations united early in the regulatory process to fight against what they called a “one size fits all” approach to flight and duty time revisions.

“The regulations are a catastrophe for our industry segment,” said Fred Jones, president of the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC). “For helicopter operators, it represents a radical departure from the status quo on virtually every level of the negotiations.”

HAC-which speaks for 140 operators who collectively represent more than 80 per cent of commercial helicopters flying in Canada today-has long been opposed to prescriptive flight and duty time regulations that do not contemplate the inherent differences between unique segments of the aviation industry.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook since we circulated the regs,” added Jones. He explained that while the new regulations are not applicable to Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) 702 aerial work operations, a category which accounts for a great deal of helicopter activity, most operators still “flip flop” between aerial work and passenger carrying – sometimes many times in the same day.

“Passenger work will be subject to the new rules, but utility ops will not. Problem is, you can’t change out a [remote] pilot, so while they are in the field they will be subject to the more restrictive regulations.”

Many of HAC’s members are seasonal operations that “make hay for four months a year” and are often conducting deployed operations in isolated locations, some of which could take three travel days to access.

The new regs reduce the permitted length of a work tour from the current 42 days (which Jones admits is a high number in need of adjustment) to just 17 days. When travel days are subtracted from that ceiling, he said in many cases there are just two weeks left to work productively on the job site.

What’s more, pilots will need 36 hours of time off in every seven days while in camp-which means that the customer will need to down-tools for a day each week, unless there is a second pilot available onsite.

“The two-week tour has now become the biggest problem, because to rotate crews in and out of remote sites every two weeks is insanity.”

Another issue that is top of mind for Jones is the omission of the so-called “zeroing” principle.

Currently, if a pilot is given five days off in a row, it zeroes their accumulated flight time and gives them a fresh start. This was a principle that Jones said was proven during the flight and duty time working group, and supported by the fatigue scientist hired by Transport Canada.

“That was erased completely from the new regs – it doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “That is one of those points strongly supported by the science. When you consider the distances in our industry and that flight crews want to spend time with their families, I would argue that pilots like to work straight stretches and then take extended periods of time off.

“Legally, under existing rules, you could give pilots time off while in camp. But nobody wants to do that.”

Making a special case

For operators who feel unable to comply with the new prescriptive flight and duty time regulations as they are written, the new legislation offers another option in the form of a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS).

According to the new regulations, this is a plan developed by operators that will allow them “the flexibility to set flight hours based on their unique operations if they can demonstrate that alertness and safety will not be affected.”

Jones said that while Transport Canada indicated it would be open to an FRMS proposal on “zeroing,” he is worried that developing a viable FRMS will be too complicated, costly and time consuming for small operators.

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“You will first have to build the science for it, test the theory, develop some methodology, and test fatigue levels using some sort of approved tool. There will be a big price tag attached to developing an FRMS-unless Transport Canada is prepared to consider an FRMS that is scalable to the size and complexity of the operator. That is something they have been unable to do for Safety Management Systems (SMS) for 15 years.”

While the helicopter industry will have four years to prepare for implementation of the new flight and duty time regulations, Jones pointed out the situation will be further exacerbated by the current pilot shortage.

“We can’t get experienced pilots to operate our aircraft in today’s regulatory environment; when these regulations come into force, it will be an even bigger challenge.”

So how is HAC moving forward?

Jones said the final version of the regulations published in Gazette II are, in some instances, more conservative than those outlined in Gazette I.

“Nobody had a chance to comment on those changes,” he said. “So the first line of defence in my view is to attack the existing regs as published. The second line of defence would be an exemption. Then, if we need to, HAC will create an FRMS framework for our operators – we would have no option at that point.”

As written, the regulations will cause significant hardship for small helicopter and fixed-wing operators serving northern, remote and Indigenous communities, Jones predicted.

“There’s no doubt about it: These regs will translate into service cuts. They will affect the viability of many small helicopter operators in Canada.

“We need to get together with Transport Canada and come up with a plan, so we’ll be ready in four years.”

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