Controversial new rules proposed by Transport Canada, which would put restraints on pilot flying time, are being called "absurd" by some in the industry in the North.

The changes could force some northern air operators — and supporting businesses in communities — to shut down, says Glenn Priestley, executive director of the Northern Air Transport Association (NATA).

"Many communities will lose their aviation lifelines, or have the cost of the service increase dramatically." - Glenn Priestley, Northern Air

"If these rules go through by Transport Canada, regarding flight and duty times, there's going to be a significant increase in the cost to deliver all forms of northern and remote society services," he said.

"Or there will be a reduction in services — one or the other."

Either way, it will "impose economic hardship on Canadians and communities," said Priestley, whose group advocates for a safe, sustainable northern transportation system, and has been lobbying Ottawa to consider the unique situation in the North.

​"Many communities will lose their aviation lifelines, or have the cost of the service increase dramatically," he wrote in a letter to MP Wayne Easter, chair of the standing committee on finance, for consideration ahead of the federal budget.

The rules, which are still being reviewed by Transport Minister Marc Garneau, are designed to prevent pilot fatigue through a "very complicated formula of flight and duty time," Priestley said.

They would limit shifts by capping the hours that can be worked or the number of takeoffs and landings that can be done.

There are also strict guidelines on how much rest must be taken at night as well as after shift lengths and before a pilot can fly again.

'Never seen more controversy'

Joe Sparling, president of Yukon-based Air North, said the proposed rules make no sense and it's not surprising the air industry is furious.

"You know I've probably never seen more controversy or objection to any rule-making," he said.

While he applauds efforts to make air travel safer, Priestley says the new rules are aimed primarily at the "heavy guys," those pilots flying commercial jetliners — not the flights of bush pilots, medevac pilots and others who serve the North.

However, the rules are being imposed as "one size fits all," he said.

Glenn Priestley

Glenn Priestley, of the Northern Air Transport Association: 'It's been a heck of a battle and the battle continues.' (Courtesy Glenn Priestley)

"They tried to apply the rules all the way down to the operator of a Beaver [single-engine bush plane] on floats, such as Ahmic Aviation in Yellowknife. It's just not the same," he said.

"We're really quite angry about it. We keep having these southern problems and southern solutions applied to northern operators who don't have the problem in the first place."

Priestley cites the use of Twin Otter planes to transfer fuel from barges to mining camps as an example. The flight might just be 10 minutes, but it is done repeatedly.

Under the new rules, pilots would reach their maximum number of takeoffs and landings before the job is complete.

"So what used to be done in a day will now take three days," Priestley said. "That's an example of something we've been doing for years, never had a problem, but now it's going to really cut back on how the work is done."

That means tying pilots up for longer periods, Priestley said. It also means companies would incur extra costs to house them at camps or need to hire additional pilots to get the work done sooner.

Another example Priestley gives is the operation of the northern medevac system. A flight might take less than an hour but a crew might sit for several hours waiting for the patient to be stabilized.

"That's where your duty time gets eaten up," Priestley says.

"So even if you only flew for half an hour, if you spend too long there you may run out of duty time and might not be able to fly back."

Yellowknife float plane dock

The same rules that would apply to commercial jetliners would impact small operators, even those using float planes. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

The crew and the patient could be stranded until the mandated rest time for the pilot has passed. Or a second crew would need to be brought in.

There are about 30,000 medevac-type flights every year in Canada and "a lot of these flights will have to be done differently at increased costs," Priestley said.

Sparling said another consequence is the loss of opportunity for employees to alter shifts or ask for flexibility in hours of work. That means staff would be permanently stuck on the same shift.

"The ability to transition crews one shift to another, you need to have a practical way of doing it, and the whole notion that an extra five minutes can trigger a need for 24 hours rest is absurd," he said.

Garneau has stated, when it comes to the proposed rules, that travellers have the right to expect their pilots to be in good shape on the job, both physically and mentally. 

"Is it important for the pilot to be well rested? Absolutely. You'll never hear me deny that [but] you can't set it in stone," Priestley said.

"You can't put it in the national regulations of Canada that this fits for everybody."

Neither Priestley or Sparling are aware of pilot fatigue ever being blamed for a serious incident in Canada.

The proposed changes were prompted by concerns in the U.S., where there were a series of accidents in which fatigue may have been an issue, said Priestley.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board has no trending issues related to fatigue, he added.

Transport Canada considering 'certain flexibility'

​Transport Canada declined a request for an interview but sent an email response.

The agency said it "recognizes that fatigue management is a complex issue" but that Canada's proposed rules align with today's scientific data, international standards, and best practices."

It is, however, looking at allowing a "certain flexibility" in the rules.

"For example, pilots who ferry surveyors mornings and evenings could rest during the middle of day to maximize flying hours and split-shift provisions could also be used to manage unique work environments," the statement said.

The agency said it has reached out to all air operators to learn about the cost impacts the new regulations could have on their operations and has held consultations to address concerns.

"Smaller operators and their associated organizations felt like the one-size-fits-all approach is not suitable for their unique type of operations, however, they did not provide alternate regimes supported by science to address this situation," the statement said.

With files from Dave Croft