​Pilots union wants Transport Canada more involved in checking foreign pilot credentials

One of Canada's pilots unions wants better checks when it comes to letting foreign pilots fly Canadian planes, following an incident in Calgary where a Slovak pilot — employed by Sunwing Airlines on a work visa — is accused of being so drunk he passed out in the cockpit.

Government officials could work more closely with foreign aviation authorities, union argues

Sunwing pilot Miroslav Gronych is a foreign national from Slovakia in Canada on a work visa. He is accused of being so drunk, that he passed out in the cockpit on Dec. 31 in Calgary. (Novy Cas/Ringier Axel Springer Slovakia)

One of Canada's pilots unions wants better checks when it comes to letting foreign pilots fly Canadian planes, following an incident in Calgary where a Slovak pilot — employed by Sunwing Airlines on a work visa  — is accused of being so drunk he passed out in the cockpit.

Miroslav Gronych is due to appear in a Calgary courtroom later this month. 

The Dec. 31 incident has Canadian pilots and unions raising concerns about the employment of foreign pilots and how closely their documentation is scrutinized by government officials.

"Transport Canada specifically directs staff to not check medicals and licences unless they have a concern," said Greg McConnell with the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, who says it shouldn't be left to airline operators to validate such important information.

"It used to be common place where licensing inspectors would check this," he said. "I'd think they would want to check to make sure licences are valid and that these people were capable of doing the work they were about to do."

McConnell says Transport Canada would also be able to work more closely with foreign aviation authorities when needed.

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"How would an airline operator be able to determine whether there are any concerns with respect to the pilots and would the foreign authority provide that information to an airline operator? I don't think they would, but I think they would provide it to Transport Canada if Transport Canada asked the question," he said.

Foreign pilots hold validation from Transport Canada

To be employed by a Canadian airline, foreign pilots who don't hold a Canadian commercial or airline transport pilot licence need a Canadian validation of their foreign licence, called a Foreign Licence Validation Certificate (FLVC).

Transport Canada says last year it issued 176 such certificates in 2016.

Sunwing says all of its foreign pilots are licensed by the European Aviation Safety Agency and receive a FLVC from Transport Canada. In addition, the company says all foreign pilots receive training and are approved by Sunwing's flight operations training department before being approved to fly a Sunwing aircraft.

No shortage of pilots in Canada, argues captain

Gilles Hudicourt, a Canadian airline captain with 30 years of aviation experience, questions why Sunwing would need to hire pilots from outside Canada.

Pilot Gilles Hudicourt doesn't think there is a pilot shortage in Canada. (CBC)

"Most industrialized countries require that airlines be flown by pilots who are licensed to fly in that country. These guys are coming and doing it with a foreign licence ... Canada is unique in the industrialized world in allowing this practice." 

He doesn't believe there's a pilot shortage in Canada.

"We've been fighting this from around 2012. It was Sunwing pilots themselves who sounded the alarm," he said.

"Air Canada doesn't have problems hiring pilots, WestJet doesn't have problems hiring pilots, Air Transat doesn't have problems hiring pilots."

Multiple safeguards in place, says pilots union

Earlier this week, Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau wrote to all commercial air carriers to say he is "very concerned" about the Sunwing incident. His department is planning a workshop in early spring where airlines, unions and medical experts can get together to "consider further steps necessary to enhance aviation safety."

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents pilots at 31 airlines in North America, released a statement Friday saying they support the minister "in the continuing effort to maintain Canada's stellar safety record."

"ALPA fully supports the existing layers of defence that ensure that pilots are fit to fly. Multiple safeguards, including regulation [Canadian Aviation Regulation 602.03], various safety programs at each individual airline, ALPA's internationally recognized pilot assistance program, and flight crew monitoring on every flight to ensure that crew members comply with government regulations and company policy, provide a thorough and effective approach to advancing aviation safety."