A survey of Canada’s aviation inspectors shows they are increasingly concerned about aviation safety because of Transport Canada rules that leave responsibility for setting acceptable levels of risk up to the airlines.

The survey, conducted by Abacus Data on behalf of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association (CFPA), indicates 67 per cent of Canadian aviation inspectors believe the current system increases the risk of a major aviation accident, up from 61 per cent in 2007.

The concern comes amid cuts to Transport Canada that mean inspectors are spending more time overseeing paperwork, and less time inspecting airplanes and airline safety systems.

At issue is the Safety Management Systems (SMS) approach, introduced in 2008, that asks any airline with planes carrying 20 or more passengers to monitor safety performance themselves. Under the change, the inspector’s role is mainly to evaluate the airlines’ systems with occasional inspections.

The CFPA expressed concern about the SMS approach to safety when it was introduced. 

A similar survey in 2007 found 74 per cent of inspectors expected a major aviation accident or incident in the near future. Now, 84 per cent of inspects expect such an accident.

Daniel Slunder, president of the CFPA, said Transport Minister Lisa Raitt should see the increased concern as a “red flag.”

“We’ve already seen the major accident inspectors feared when a First Air jet crashed in Nunavut in 2011. The next crash could be in Toronto or some other major Canadian city,” Slunder said in a news release.

A Transport Canada assessment had found no problems with First Air’s SMS just months before the crash, which killed 12 people.

More time between mandatory inspections

Transport Canada has decreased the frequency of mandatory inspections of airlines from one year to three years because of dwindling resources, the CFPA claims. Some airlines may go uninspected for up to five years, it says.

Transport Canada also has ended unannounced in-person inspections in favour of audits of company paperwork, according to Christine Collins, president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees.

Canada’s auditor general has already raised concerns about the lack of traditional inspections.

“Transport Canada is not adequately managing the risks associated with its civil aviation oversight,” Auditor General Michael Ferguson said in his 2012 report.

CBC News has reached out to Raitt for comment but her office has not replied.

A statement from Air Canada said safety is a “core value” for the airline.

“We have invested significant resources in our integrated Safety Management System. We believe SMS is a highly effective additional layer of safety that encourages everyone working at Air Canada to make safety their top priority in whatever they do,” the statement said.

Air Canada also pointed to other air transport agencies, such as International Air Transport Association (IATA), that have audited their safety systems.

WestJet has declined comment.

The National Airlines Council of Canada, a trade association representing Canada's four largest passenger air carriers, including WestJet, Air Canada, Jazz and Air Transat, issued a statement saying its members are “committed to SMS as an enhancement of existing safety processes.”

"The aviation industry has invested heavily into the development and implementation of enhanced safety systems and protocols, which have certainly played a role in making air travel safer than ever. There is no basis in fact to suggest otherwise," the NACC said in its statement.  

The CFPA survey, conducted from Feb. 13 to March 14 of this year, was based on 284 responses to an email questionnaire from licensed pilot inspectors and technical inspectors.