Airline Association Implores Ottawa to Change New Pilot Fatigue Rules to Avoid Devastating Industry

Omar Alghabra, Minister of Transport; John McKenna, CEO ATAC (File photos)

The chronic pilot shortage story has taken another twist.

The Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) publicized its latest letter, dated 08JUN, to the Minister of Transport concerning new pilot fatigue rules it says could ground Canada’s air industry.

It’s not that the airlines don’t want well-rested pilots.

The regulations intersect with a chronic pilot shortage, remote communities that rely exclusively on small, regional air service - and Canada's entire air industry.

The rules aren’t exactly new. In 2019, flight crew fatigue regulations were modified by the federal government. Previously, pilots could work 1200 hours a year. That number was reduced to 1000 hours per 365 days.

ATAC has no dispute with pilot safety - or the thousand-hour rule in principle. However, when it came into effect, ATAC’s CEO, John McKenna, tells Open Jaw that it applied mainly to the big league airlines, not to the many small regional airlines. In DEC, 2022, the rules became universal.

That created conditions for a perfect storm, ATAC claims, since, in order to meet the new requirements, even smaller, regional airlines would need 30 per cent more pilots. And there just aren’t that many pilots to go around.

If smaller airlines are forced to reduce their networks or are even forced out of business altogether, ATAC and others predict dire results:

  1. Loss of essential air connectivity to countless smaller communities across Canada with few other options; and
  2. A snowball effect on the pilot shortage, as the smaller regional airlines are the ‘farm teams’ that feed new pilots into Canada’s major league airlines.

In addition, even small technical or airport delays could push pilots over limits on the number of consecutive hours of service they are permitted to work. Then the flight crew gets pulled, and the flight is delayed further while a new crew is boarded - or worse, the flight gets cancelled altogether.

That in turn would trigger new financial obligations for airlines under the new Air Passenger Protection Rules that place the pax compensation burden entirely on the airline regardless of whether it’s the airline’s fault a flight is delayed or cancelled.

“Your intervention must happen now,” says the 08JUN letter from McKenna to Omar Alghabra, Minister of Transport.

He calls the expansion of the pilot fatigue rules during an historic pilot shortage, “preposterous.”

He points out, “Your department is aware of the impact of a global pilot and AME shortage. Instead of aiding, providing relief, your department is aggravating the problem.

"Imposing a regulation requiring an overnight increase in pilots in the midst of severe pilot shortage demonstrates a complete lack of understanding and a total disregard for sustained air services to Canada’s remote regions.

"The government indicated it plans to levy higher fees, compensation levels, and penalties associated with the APPR. Why is this government holding the aviation industry to standards no other industry or government service is mandated to meet? You have mentioned publicly that Canadian regulations are stricter than those in the US or the European Union, but we must ask why is this necessary in such a competitive environment? This government is driving up the cost of our industry, making us globally uncompetitive,” he adds in his letter to Alghabra.

“Recovery from the pandemic is compromised by unacceptable, substandard, and negligent levels of service by the Government of Canada, NAV CANADA, Airport Authorities, CATSA, CBSA, and by ground service providers,” yet it is the airlines struggling to recover that bear the full compensation burden of delayed and cancelled flights which will be compounded by reduced pilot hours.

“We implore you,” the letter continues, to suspend all Flight Crew Fatigue Management Regulations, including those affecting (smaller) operators, for at least 18 months, while the industry and government collaborate on an achievable framework for pilot workload, as well as for newly trained pilots to enter the system.

The appeal appears to be falling on deaf ears, with a Transport Ministry spokesperson telling a newspaper in Northern Ontario that Ottawa understands “how crucial regional and northern air carriers are to connecting and serving remote communities across the country.”

Nonetheless, "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 government response also seems to indicate that the gradual implementation of the new rules over 3 years provided the air industry sufficient time to make adjustments and that they reflect current science and international standards.

However, ATAC’s letter refutes the government’s position, saying, “The suggested Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) alternatives, the usual Transport Canada go-to answer, has been amply proven to be impractical and impossible to implement except for perhaps Canada’s largest carrier.”

And it says, “Canada’s air transportation system is damaged and without intervention will be irreparably compromised.”

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