The government’s Bill C-49 is intended to overhaul and modernize airline passenger rights in Canada. However, the bill contains no plans to compensate passengers for delays caused by airline maintenance issues, even though such issues are well within an airline’s control – even according to Transport Minister Marc Garneau. So why no compensation, when this already exists in Europe? In December 2017, the Transport Minister stated on CBC’s Marketplace that such was the case because “for safety reasons, we don’t want them to take off if there is a problem”.
His answer frightens me.
Airline safety in Canada, like in most of the Western world, is governed by the maxim that safety trumps all other considerations, including profit. In Europe, carriers are naturally expected to put safety first, all the while compensating passengers for delays or cancellations caused by mechanical issues. The Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) are also extremely strict, having contributed in large measure to the safety of commercial air travel. So why would the Minister even suggest that Canadian airlines would consider taking off with unresolved mechanical issues to avoid the financial burden of passenger compensation for a delayed or cancelled flight?
There is a certain logic to his argument, but only if one assumes that profits come ahead of safety for an airline. In such a twisted world, an airline would only delay or cancel a flight to repair an airplane adequately if it was not going to be penalized monetarily for doing so. Hence, Canada’s Transport Minister is tacitly admitting through his answer that we are already living in this twisted world. And sadly, I am afraid he is correct. I have experienced airlines regularly putting OTP (On Time Performance) well ahead of any other concerns, including safety. The only one who can change this is the government itself through an appropriate level of safety audits and field inspections--both scheduled and surprise. Unfortunately, the government has been reducing inspections to a bare minimum through its own cost reductions, and has transferred much responsibility for safety to the airlines through an in-house self-policing safety program called SMS (Safety Management System), for which Canada sadly is a pioneer. This is akin to asking the fox to guard the henhouse. Some airlines are better than others, but this remains an unacceptable risk. The crash that occurred in Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan last December could likely have been avoided through better safety oversight. The fact that Transport Canada pulled the carrier's operating license shortly after the accident for “deficiencies” in the company’s operations points to deep systemic problems at the carrier - none of which were detected ahead of time by either Transport Canada or the SMS. It is an extreme stroke of good luck and circumstances that most passengers survived.
Many operators are simply motivated by maximizing short term profits. Minister Garneau seems to agree. Removing the obligation to compensate passengers for delays caused by maintenance would give companies greater flexibility in how and when to carry out maintenance - all at passengers' expense in terms of delays and inconvenience. It would pad profits while being unfair to passengers.
Fixing the system requires a heightened level of oversight for the CARs from Transport Canada. Unfortunately, we've been going in the opposite direction and are merrily continuing that way. The bottom line is that any unchecked profit motive encourages cost reductions - even if it affects safety - sometimes to the point where human injury and death occur. We have been down this road before in the food industry (2008 listeriosis outbreak, which killed 22 Canadians due to contaminated meat processing machinery), water treatment (2000 Walkerton water E.coli outbreak, where 7 Canadians died due to improper treatment procedures), and of course numerous aviation accidents. The only answer in all these cases is more inspections. Sadly, such is human nature.
I worry that it is just a matter of time before someone else dies in Canada at the hands of another unscrupulous airline.
Alan Eugeni is an airline pilot based in Montreal, QC. He holds an engineering degree, MBA and ATPL. In 2017, he wrote "The Next Plane Crash: An Airline Pilot's Account of How the Race for Profits is Destroying the Safety of Air Travel in North America." The book is available on thenextplanecrash.com.