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The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) released four targeted recommendations on Nov. 7 that aim to improve safety in the country’s air taxi sector.
Despite a steadily improving safety record in Canadian commercial aviation, the air taxi segment – which includes aircraft and helicopters carrying fewer than 10 passengers by regulation – continues to have more accidents than all other sectors of Canadian commercial aviation combined.
In its report, entitled “Raising the bar on safety: Reducing the risks associated with air taxi operations in Canada,” the TSB writes that the numbers speak for themselves.
“In the 18-year period from Jan. 1, 2000 to Dec. 31, 2017, there were 789 accidents in the air taxi sector, resulting in 240 fatalities – representing 55 per cent of all accidents in commercial air services in Canada and 62 per cent of the fatalities in this period.”
The list of four recommendations stemming from the TSB report includes: eliminating the acceptance of unsafe operational practices; promoting proactive safety management processes and a positive safety culture; closing identified safety gaps in existing aviation regulations; and improving the collection of data to help regulators evaluate the impact of safety-related recommendations.
Air taxi is an industry segment that provides critical services, including medevacs, passenger transport to hunting and fishing camps, delivering workers to remote locations, and service to small isolated communities. The TSB emphasized that companies in this aviation sector face a vastly different operating context compared to any other segment.
Often, these operators have no set schedules and fly into remote areas in uncontrolled airspace, with few aerodromes or navigation aids and sparse weather information.
“Flights tend to be shorter, resulting in more takeoffs and landings,” pointed out TSB chair Kathy Fox during a media briefing that summarized the findings of the board’s investigation. In compiling the report, the TSB studied more than 700 occurrences from 2000 to 2014, as well as 167 of its own investigation reports.
In addition, the board interviewed 125 people from almost three dozen operators across the country, as well as Transport Canada.
“After sifting through all those data, we identified 19 safety themes, illustrating the day-to-day challenges of operating in the air taxi sector,” said Glen Whitney, the TSB investigator in charge of the air taxi inquiry.
“But these accidents really boil down to a pair of key underlying factors. First, a slow, incremental drift toward accepting unsafe practices . . . I’m talking about a gradual drift that occurs over time with every successful (though not necessarily safe) flight.”
He pointed to examples such as flying overweight, proceeding despite marginal weather or forecasted icing, or flying with minimal fuel reserves.
The second factor compounds the first, said Whitney, pointing the finger at inadequate management of operational hazards.
“Here, I mean things like sub-optimal crew pairing, dispatching a flight with a different pilot after a first pilot has refused, or not having scales available so that aircraft aren’t flown overweight.”
The TSB acknowledged that air taxi operators, like any business, must balance a number of competing pressures to remain viable. The key, said Whitney, is to ensure those pressures stay in relative balance.
When they’re not in equilibrium, “competing pressures can force air taxi operations into a space that isn’t safe,” he added. “That doesn’t mean the result is always an accident, but it almost always means a reduced margin of safety.”
Fox told the media there will always be a need for air taxi operations and that passengers and crew should not have to accept a reduced level of safety compared to those who fly on scheduled airlines.
“And so, things need to change,” she said. “That will mean getting clients, passengers, crews, and operators to stop accepting unsafe practices – even unwittingly – and to speak up to prevent them from happening . . . That’s what today’s first recommendation is all about: raising the bar on safety.”
She called upon Transport Canada to work with industry associations to develop tools and strategies to help combat these unsafe practices.
Associations also have a role in promoting a proactive safety culture through the provision of training and the sharing of information and best practices.
As well, the TSB is encouraging Transport Canada to close safety-related gaps in existing aviation regulations that allow some operators to get by with doing the bare minimum, while others go above and beyond.
Finally, the TSB is recommending that the regulator mandate all commercial operators to provide data on aircraft movements and hours flown. It says this will help in the calculation of accident rate per hour flown, a critical statistic to evaluate each aviation sector.
In addition to the four recommendations released on Nov. 7, the TSB also referred to 22 previous air taxi recommendations that it says would go a long way to improving sector safety if implemented.
When asked whether lower time, more inexperienced crews – many of whom work for air taxi operators – might be a contributing factor in the sector’s higher accident rate, Fox said that isn’t always the case.
“Studies show that many of these accidents were happening to crews with thousands of hours,” she said. “Experience in itself doesn’t mitigate against these types of accidents.”
John McKenna, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC), told Vertical the association is impressed with the TSB’s examination of the air taxi sector. “ATAC considers this report to be an excellent primer and checklist for developing future safety enhancements for the air taxi industry,” he wrote in an email. He said the association encourages voluntary adoption of safety programs and close collaboration with the regulator.
The TSB said it will communicate with Transport Canada, air taxi operators, clients and passengers, and industry associations to help them create “a culture where unsafe practices are unacceptable and operational hazards are adequately managed.”