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Exclusive: Liberals ‘will welcome discussion’ on random alcohol testing for pilots

Early last month, after impaired charges were laid against a Sunwing pilot who was found unconscious in a plane at the Calgary airport, the Liberals wouldn’t commit to considering the measure.
Early last month, after impaired charges were laid against a Sunwing pilot who was found unconscious in a plane at the Calgary airport, the Liberals wouldn’t commit to considering the measure. File photo

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he is open to hearing arguments in favour of randomly testing airline pilots for alcohol consumption, a measure not currently practised in Canada.

“We will welcome discussion on [random testing] and I look forward to hearing from all quarters about what their thoughts are on random testing,” he said in an interview with Global News.

Early last month, after impaired charges were laid against a Sunwing pilot who was found unconscious in a plane at the Calgary airport, the Liberals wouldn’t commit to considering the measure.

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READ MORE: Sunwing unclear on alcohol, drug testing laws in wake of impaired pilot’s arrest

In the wake of the Sunwing case, Garneau announced he was convening airlines, unions and medical experts in the spring in an effort to ensure nothing like it happens again.

It is a criminal offence in Canada for any member of a flight crew to work within eight hours of consuming alcohol or while under the influence.

WATCH: Sunwing passengers speak out on pilot accused of being drunk

Click to play video: 'Sunwing passengers speak out on pilot accused of being drunk' Sunwing passengers speak out on pilot accused of being drunk
Sunwing passengers speak out on pilot accused of being drunk – Jan 8, 2017

Transport Canada sets the regulations to which Canadian airlines are bound, but ensuring the rules are followed is incumbent on the airlines.

“Transport Canada can’t be sitting at the entrance of every cockpit of every flight in the country, so it is done by the airlines themselves,” Garneau said Thursday.

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In the lead up to the spring summit, Garneau asked airlines to confirm their safety protocols were “up-to-date,” including steps taken to guarantee their pilots are fit to fly.

WATCH: Federal transport minister responds to Drunk Sunwing pilots arrest

Click to play video: 'Federal transport minister responds to Drunk Sunwing pilots arrest' Federal transport minister responds to Drunk Sunwing pilots arrest
Federal transport minister responds to Drunk Sunwing pilots arrest – Jan 4, 2017

The top eight Canadian airlines, which represents 90 per cent of passengers flying on Canadian carriers, confirmed their protocols on alcohol and drug testing are robust, the minister’s office said.

“But [random testing] is a topic that we’re going to bring up in terms of discussing and hearing peoples’ different views,” Garneau said. “We want to have an open conversation with, ultimately, all of us aiming to achieve one thing, which is to make sure that when a pilot gets into the cockpit of an aircraft they’re fit to fly.”
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Though it may be on the table, the legality of implementing random alcohol and drug testing is questionable.

READ MORE: Sunwing Airlines says all foreign pilots trained, approved

A lawyer specializing in impairment and employment laws told Global News in January that random testing is “almost never permitted” in Canada – despite being a routine part of American testing regulated under the Federal Aviation Administration.

Georg Reuter pointed to a 2013 Supreme Court of Canada decision that ruled random testing of employees would only be permitted in very rare instances in which an employer could prove there was a general problem with drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace.

WATCH: Sunwing unclear on sobriety test rules

Click to play video: 'Sunwing unclear on sobriety test rules' Sunwing unclear on sobriety test rules
Sunwing unclear on sobriety test rules – Jan 3, 2017

The government could, however, try to implement a law allowing random testing for pilots, he said.

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Garneau, however, said the government for now is relying on the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“There are different rules in other countries, but in Canada because of the Charter of Rights, we have a particular approach,” the minister said.

Sunwing Airlines, the company that employed the foreign pilot arrested in Calgary in December, said it will attend the minister’s workshop this spring.  Air Canada and WestJet also said they will participate.

Safety protocols in Canada stand in marked contrast to those in the United States, where the Federal Aviation Administration regulates alcohol testing for U.S. airlines; their pilots and crew are subject to testing throughout their employment.

Transport Canada, however only forbids flight crew from working within eight hours of consuming alcohol, but doesn’t mandate random testing.

With files from Global News’ Erika Tucker

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