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January 5, 2017 3:58 pm
Updated: January 5, 2017 8:32 pm

Transport minister convenes aviation safety summit after arrest of Sunwing pilot

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau is summoning airlines to a workshop to talk safety after an alleged drunk pilot passed out in a cockpit. As Reid Fiest reports, Garneau is asking companies to review how they ensure pilots are fit to fly by mid-February.

The minister of transport is summoning airlines, unions and medical experts together for a spring summit to make sure the case of an allegedly drunken Sunwing pilot getting ready to take off with a planeload of passengers is not repeated.

The meeting comes in the wake of Global News reports exposing the lack of random drug and alcohol testing of pilots in Canada and confusion on behalf of both the federal government and Canadian airlines about what kind of testing programs can be implemented.

Questions were prompted by the arrest of a pilot who was police said was tested at three times the legal alcohol limit before he was removed from a cockpit in Calgary on Dec. 31.

Watch below: Canada’s transport minister is reacting to the arrest of a pilot who was pulled off a Sunwing flight and charged with being intoxicated with a message for airlines. As Reid Fiest reports, larger questions remain about what Canadian companies can do to ensure pilots are sober.

In a letter addressed to commercial airlines and sent to Global News on Thursday, Minister Marc Garneau wrote he was “very concerned.”

“The incident in Calgary reminds us all of the need to ensure that protocols are up to date and that they are being implemented with all the required resources, including measures designed to confirm pilots’ fitness to fly,” he wrote. “I ask that you please confirm with my department that such measures are in place by Feb. 15, 2017.”

READ MORE: Transport minister calling on Canada’s airlines to ensure pilots are fit to fly

He added standard protocols and “quick crew action” were successful in the Calgary ordeal (the gate crew notified the co-pilot, who notified police before the plane took off) but said there is a “collective” responsibility to make sure Canadian systems are “robust enough to prevent such incidents in the future.”

“As part of our shared goal of improving safety, Transport Canada officials are organizing a workshop in early spring to bring companies, unions and medical experts together to consider further steps necessary to enhance aviation safety.”

When Global News asked the minister’s office whether “further steps” could include the potential implementation of random alcohol tests for pilots and crew, they refused to address the question.

Instead, they wrote:

“Transport Canada will consult with key stakeholders including operators, pilot unions, and health professionals, to:

• Develop support tools to aid air operators in their employee assistance programs;
• Enhance education, and;
• Direct operators to use safety management systems to identify, assess and mitigate risks associated with pilot impairment.”

Sunwing Airlines, the company that employed the foreign pilot arrested in Calgary, said it will attend the workshop.

“We… look forward to collaborating with other airlines and Transport Canada towards a common goal of further enhancing safety within the Canadian airline industry,” spokesperson Jacqueline Grossman said in an email.

Spokespeople from Air Canada and WestJet said they would be participating in the meeting.

Watch below from Jan. 2: Sunwing Airlines says the Slovakian pilot accused of being drunk before a flight from Calgary to Cancun was a foreign pilot on contract but met all Canadian regulations to fly the aircraft.

Safety protocols in Canada stand in marked contrast to those in the United States, where airline pilots and flight crews are subjected to random alcohol and drug testing. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates alcohol testing for U.S. airlines and pilots/crew are subject to testing throughout their employment. There’s even a division dedicated to “drug abatement.”

“A U.S. airline must ensure that any safety-sensitive employee (which includes pilots that perform flight crewmember duties and flight attendants) is subject to random alcohol testing throughout their employment,”  drug abatement division program policy branch manager Vicky Dunne said in an email to Global News on Thursday.

Dunne went on to highlight that:

“Unlike the Canadian laws you described, the FAA requires an airline to conduct random alcohol testing whether a pilot or flight attendant participates in a monitoring/continuous support arrangement or is tested to demonstrate a substance abuse issue in the workplace.”

She said pilots could be tested under their own treatment program or under the FAA’s follow-up protocol if there was a previous “alcohol violation” but those pilots are still part of the random program, subject to both types of testing.

“Both the Department of Transportation and FAA consider random testing as an important tool to detect and deter employees from using drugs and misusing alcohol while performing safety-sensitive duties.”

Dunne wrote employers are required to conduct random alcohol testing at an annual rate of 10 per cent. She said random drug testing is the same; however, the annual random rate for drug testing is 25 per cent.

For how the FAA calculates the number of random tests, visit Attachment A here

By contrast, Transport Canada doesn’t mandate or regulate random testing programs. Instead, it notes members of a flight crew are prohibited from working within eight hours of consuming alcohol or while under the influence.

When it comes to random testing, Transport Canada said that is “up to the employer.” But both the federal government and Canada’s airlines point out a Supreme Court decision makes it very difficult to implement testing programs.

“There is nothing specific in the Canada Labour Code about drug and alcohol testing,” Justice Department spokesperson Ian McLeod reiterated. “However, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 30 v. Irving Pulp & Paper, Ltd. that an employer cannot unilaterally implement random alcohol or drug testing even in a highly dangerous workplace, unless there is a demonstrated workplace problem or it is ‘for cause’ testing of an individual employee.”

The Canadian Human Rights Commission’s Policy on Alcohol and Drug Testing is currently being revised and expected in the “coming weeks,” a CHRC spokesperson said.

The Air Canada Pilots Association (ACPA) said Wednesday that in Canada, “mandatory random testing is not generally supported by the jurisprudence.”

With files from Reid Fiest

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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