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Canada’s safety record compares well with others, but its skies aren’t risk-free

By Kathy Fox,
Chair, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2016 issue of the Hill Times newspaper.

Air transport plays a vital role in the Canadian economy, bringing people and goods closer together and helping to shrink the vast distances from coast to coast to coast. And whether they're in St. John's, Ottawa, Victoria, or Inuvik, Canadians can take pride in knowing that our aviation network is among the world's best, comparing favorably with the safety record of any other country.

But that doesn't mean Canadian skies are risk-free.

That's where we come in. At the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, it's our job to investigate selected transportation occurrences, to identify risks within the system, and to communicate what we learn to the Canadian public and to those best-placed to effect change. Most of the time, when the TSB's experts make a recommendation, regulators and industry take it seriously, and do a good job of taking action. Sometimes, however, there's more to be done.

For instance, the way in which companies are required to manage the safety risks within their organizations is inconsistent. Some companies rely solely on regulations to tell them what's safe and what's not, even though such an approach cannot possibly foresee every contingency. Other companies, meanwhile, are mandated to use a more formal, systemic tool known as a Safety Management System, or SMS. This involves taking a comprehensive look at all operational aspects, then analyzing where the biggest risks lie and implementing mitigation measures to prevent accidents from happening.

But regardless whether they're a large carrier that's been using SMS for over a decade or a small carrier striving to make the transition, it's important that companies be able to demonstrate that they're capable of operating safely. And when they can't, it is up to the regulator—Transport Canada—to step in and provide appropriate levels of oversight and intervention. This means more than just ensuring operators meet the minimum regulatory requirements, a fact that was underscored earlier this year when the TSB released its report into the tragic 2013 Ornge helicopter accident in Moosonee, Ontario.

In that occurrence, we found a company that was unable to ensure the crew was operationally ready to fly in the conditions they encountered that night, a company whose safety management activities were compromised by insufficient and inexperienced personnel in key positions. The regulator knew about many of the problems, yet its collaborative approach to oversight of a willing operator still allowed non-conformances and unsafe practices to persist.

This kind of reluctance to step in and take action—of not knowing when enough is enough—goes beyond one company or even one accident. In fact, it's turned up in a number of TSB investigations, with enough frequency to earn it a prominent spot on our Watchlist of key safety issues. Without a significant overhaul in the way Transport Canada oversees how companies manage safety—and how those companies in turn demonstrate that their safety processes are working—this issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Moving forward, the TSB will be keeping a close eye on this issue, and indeed on how the regulator responds to all of our recommendations. Because SMS isn't the only area of aviation where there's room for improvement. Issues such as harmonizing with international standards for cockpit voice recorders, improved training in pilot decision-making and crew resource management—areas where the risks we've identified are both serious and systemic—have seen little or no progress for years or even decades. That's simply unacceptable, especially when implementing our recommendations could significantly reduce risks within the system.

Very soon, the TSB will release its latest edition of the Watchlist. We'll state, in clear and unambiguous terms, those safety issues that need to be addressed in Canada's transportation network. And then we'll set out exactly what needs to be done so that Canadians across the country can be sure those risks are being addressed. Where progress is being made, we'll say so. But where not enough is being done, we're going to be vocal about it. Canadians deserve no less.