Flight attendants are urging the federal government to rethink a proposal to introduce regulations that would allow airlines to reduce the number of flight attendants, as Transport Canada holds a day-long consultation with air transportation experts and stakeholders in Ottawa today.

Current federal regulations require one flight attendant for every 40 passengers, but as part of the changes the government is hoping to introduce, commercial airlines will also have a second option of one flight attendant for every 50 passenger seats, whether or not those seats are occupied.

CUPE Airline Division, a union that represents about 10,000 flight attendants, is against the changes. It says that the new 1:50 attendant-passenger ratio will put Canadians at risk.

It argues that fewer flight attendants means safety will be reduced, especially in an emergency evacuation situation.

"There was already no margin of error in an emergency situation with the actual ratio of one flight attendant per 40," said Michel Cournoyer, CUPE Airline Division president. "With a smaller crew to start with, imagine how things could turn if a flight attendant is injured in an evacuation."

Danika Ward, a flight attendant with CanJet Airlines, said her job is not just about servicing passengers, but ensuring their safety while on board a plane and in the event passengers need to get off.

"It's not just about opening the door. It's about dealing with unruly passengers, people who may possibly smoke, drink, get physical — anything on the aircraft. We're trained in CPR, we're trained in all kinds of things — emergency child birth is one of those things. There's so much that we are responsible for," she said in an interview with the CBC's Julie Van Dusen.

An insurance policy for your life

Speaking to reporters outside the Transport Canada conference, Cournoyer recalled when Air France Flight 358 crashed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport in 2005. All 309 people aboard survived, "largely due to a rapid evacuation by the flight attendants."

"That ratio that day was one flight attendant for 30 passengers. All emergency exits were staffed," he said.

Cournoyer said the proposed changes would mean some airplane exits would be left unmanned. However, under the proposed rules, commercial airlines would be required to have a flight attendant at each floor-level exit on all wide-body planes. 

With regards to narrower planes, such as airbuses, the new regulations would force airlines to have specific training for flight attendants assigned to more than one exit during emergency evacuations. 

Cournoyer did acknowledge that those situations "don't happen very often."

"But when it happens, you want to make sure that we have the full crew to save everybody's life," he said.

"It is an insurance policy. It is insuring your life."

The safety arm of Transport Canada had conducted a risk analysis in 2002, when the proposal to change flight attendant ratios was first requested by the airline industry. It found that the 1:50 rule "on some occasions will provide less than the equivalent level of safety, while on other occasions a more than equivalent level of safety to the current 1:40 operating rule."

According to the assessment, it would be safer to operate a flight under the 1:50 ratio when there are fewer passengers, and less safe when the flight is at full or nearly full capacity.

1:50 rule the international standard

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt doesn't have qualms about moving to the 1:50 ratio. 

"I am comfortable with this safety aspect of moving to a standard that is already in place in the U.S. and in Europe," she said in a teleconference from Leipzig, Germany. Raitt was attending a summit hosted by the International Transport Forum.

Airlines in the U.S. and Europe already operate under the 1:50 ratio, considered the international standard. Plus, Transport Canada allows foreign airlines in Canada to operate using that ratio.

Canadian airlines, such as Sunwing and WestJet, also asked the government to be exempt from the 1:40 rule.

"And as more and more airlines requested the same exemption, I took the decision to ensure that we went through a regulatory process," said Raitt.

"If we were going to be changing the rule, we don't do it by exemption. We do it by going through a regulatory process that actually gives CUPE the ability to make representations, which is exactly what they are doing."

But the Official Opposition doesn't think that the consultations, which are only scheduled for one day, are enough.

"It was really hard for me, as the opposition critic, to know that it was happening. It was hard for me, even, to have the agenda. We don't know who's here, we don't have the list of witnesses — I'm not even sure I'll be able to speak, " NDP transportation critic Hoang Mai said Thursday morning.

"It's a one-day consultation on such a serious issue."

With files from Julie Van Dusen