Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that all commercial airline pilots in Canada are required to take the pilot proficiency test twice a year. In fact, there are subsets of airline pilots (flying air taxis and private planes, for example) who only need to pass it once a year.
The chances of passing the twice-yearly competency test required of most commercial airline pilots in Canada seems to hinge at least partly on who is doing the testing: a Transport Canada inspector, or a fellow commercial pilot.
Critics say that it’s a longstanding pattern that represents just one of a growing number of weaknesses in the system for overseeing aviation safety in Canada – weaknesses that, when put together, could help explain a recent spike in accidents and incidents in the air.
“If there was ever a time for Transport Canada to get into the cockpits, to get back to providing oversight, to get back to providing checks on a regular basis, the time is now,” said Greg McConnell, national chair of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association (CFPA), which represents government pilots and inspectors.
“I hate to say we’re on the precipice of something bad, but we are.”
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There were already mounting concerns that a new, company-centric approach to airline safety – ushered in about a decade ago – puts too much onus on the airlines to monitor themselves. Cuts to Transport Canada’s budget and inspector training programs in the years since have also been flagged by the CFPA.
Now, new statistics tabled in the House of Commons reveal that failure rates for what’s known as the “pilot proficiency test” are generally lower if the pilot is being evaluated by a colleague – someone they might even consider a friend.
Failing a friend
The overall fail rate for the proficiency test remains low — fewer than 5 per cent of pilots usually flunk it.
Commercial airline pilots have to take it twice a year, and the average failure rate between 2005 and 2016 when the test was administered by Transport Canada’s inspectors was 3.96 per cent.
But Transport Canada doesn’t have nearly enough inspectors to do all the testing required, so for the last 25 years the department has followed the common international practice of using “check pilots.” These pilots are employed by commercial airlines like Westjet or Air Canada, and have been approved to administer the tests. They often work for the same company as the pilot they are evaluating.
Their average fail rate, over the same time period of 2005 to 2016, was 1.85 per cent. That’s half the rate of the Transport Canada inspectors.
Asked about the discrepancy, Transport Canada cited volume. The department said that its inspectors carry out about 300 tests a year. Approved check pilots conduct 15,000.
“As such, it is not unusual to see a higher failure rate in pilot proficiency check results when a pilot is evaluated by Transport Canada inspectors,” the department said in a statement.
“These failures can often be attributed to human and organizational factors, including higher stress levels and performance pressures.”
McConnell at the CFPA isn’t buying that explanation.
“When a (Transport Canada) inspector does a check ride, he’s simply measuring the candidate’s performance against the standard,” said McConnell, who has more than two decades of flying experience.
“When a company check pilot is doing the same exercise, from time to time it’s harder to fail a friend. … Transport Canada inspectors are simply doing their job, and so friendship doesn’t get in the way.”
Time is money
There are also issues of time, convenience and – perhaps most importantly – money, he added. Failing a pilot means grounding them, and potentially sending them back into a flight simulator to practice.
If a company doesn’t own their own simulators, they need to pay to use one and often pay extra to cover the pilot’s hotel room and per diems during re-training. The company might even have to adjust its flight schedule, shuffling other pilots around to compensate.
Transport Canada’s inspectors don’t care about any of that, McConnell noted.
“The failure rate’s always been fairly consistent, in that Transport Canada inspectors fail pilots at twice the rate of company check pilots. That’s not very new at all.”
The pilot proficiency test measures everything from a pilot’s basic knowledge of an aircraft to their ability to react to an engine malfunction. Keeping the plane at a consistent speed and altitude is also critical, and barring circumstances beyond a pilot’s control (like weather), any mistake can lead to a failed test.
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NDP MP Robert Aubin, who sits on the House of Commons transportation committee and requested the failure-rate data from the government last November, said he doesn’t believe that pilots are more “stressed” being tested by a government inspector.
“If there are people who have to contend with stress on a daily basis, it’s pilots,” Aubin said.
“So you can’t tell me that because the evaluation is happening with Transport Canada, that it’s more stressful, that there’s a higher failure rate … In my opinion, all of the evaluations should be done by Transport Canada.”
Inspectors who don’t fly?
Beyond the discrepancy in failure rates, McConnell said, his organization has also been tracking other problems with the way pilots and airlines are monitored by the federal government.
For one, the fleet of aircraft that Transport Canada uses to keep its inspectors trained up (so that they, in turn, can properly evaluate pilots) has been cut from 42 planes to 14 over the last decade.
Transport Canada’s civil aviation flying program, which McConnell says ensures inspectors’ pilot licences stay current, has seen its budget sliced in half, from $7.9 million in 2008-09 to $3.5 million in 2016-17.
The result is more and more Transport Canada inspectors who haven’t flown a real airplane themselves for – in some cases – years.
Last spring, the CFPA commissioned an independent survey of its membership, which includes Transport Canada inspectors, plus departmental investigators and other licensed government pilots.
A full 67 per cent of the inspectors who responded said it had been at least a year since they’d flown a real plane. On average, they hadn’t acted as “pilot-in-command” of an aircraft for three years.
And just over 80 per cent said they felt a major aviation accident in the near future was likely, “given their knowledge of the state of aviation safety in Canada today.”
The CFPA says it presented the findings to the government, but received little positive feedback.
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Transport Canada told Global News that safety remains its top priority and that Canada’s aviation safety record is internationally recognized. Resources are deployed based on risk assessment and are constantly being re-evaluated and modified, it explained.
As far as ongoing training for its inspectors, Transport Canada says it’s relying increasingly on sophisticated flight simulators.
“To ensure aviation safety, there are a number of additional training and licensing requirements with which all Canadian pilots must comply,” the department said.
“Flight simulators have advanced dramatically over past years, and are now highly sophisticated, allowing pilots to gain experience in all types of scenarios and situations.”
But according to the NDP’s Aubin, simulators aren’t the same as real flying. He said pilots have told him that the machines remain incapable of replicating one key variable: the certain knowledge that a mistake could result in catastrophe.
“In the sky, not only are you in a real situation, but there are hundreds of passengers behind you that are depending on your professional competence,” Aubin said.
“Year after year, they’re diminishing or cutting the budgets at Transport Canada for inspections. So how to do better with fewer resources? … Obviously we’re taking an approach that’s always retroactive, instead of proactive.”
Spike in accidents, incidents
In spite of the government’s assurances, newly released statistics seem to bear out critics’ fears. Until last year, the number of accidents and incidents involving commercial aircraft were on a steady decline in Canada.
But in February, the Transportation Safety Board revealed that there had been 94 incidents involving commercial aircraft operators in 2017, a jump from the 63 recorded in 2016 and much higher than the five-year average of 79.
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Meanwhile, Transport Canada is looking at scaling back the degree to which it independently evaluates the industry “check pilots” who conduct the pilot proficiency tests on the department’s behalf.
“On-site” monitoring of some check pilots will soon be shared with the airlines, the department confirmed, although no firm date has been set for that change. It was supposed to happen on April 1, but that has been “deferred.”
Regardless, that just pushes the industry one step closer to self-regulation, said McConnell.
“It’s a good (regulatory) system, it requires more vigilance, it requires more oversight on behalf of transport Canada,” he said. “You need to have the cops on the street.”