Ottawa

Pilot fatigue rules set to move forward despite safety concerns

Controversial pilot fatigue regulations that would set limits on how long pilots can fly in a day will move forward, says Transport Minister Marc Garneau, despite some groups saying they're too rushed and could cause new safety concerns.

Transport Canada spent six years drafting the new regulations

Transport Minister Marc Garneau is moving forward with changes to flight fatigue and duty-time regulations later this month to match standards in the U.S. and Europe. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Controversial pilot fatigue regulations that would set limits on how long pilots can fly in a day will move forward, despite some groups saying they're too rushed and could cause new safety concerns.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau spoke at a two-day safety workshop about mental health and substance abuse in Gatineau, Que., and said the new Transport Canada rules will proceed.

In his opening remarks, he stressed that Canadian travellers have the right to expect their pilots to be in good shape on the job, both physically and mentally. 

"On the physical side, we know that to be alert and fully functioning, pilots need to be well-rested," Garneau told 200 members of the aviation industry. "So we set limits to the amount of time a crew member can be on the job."

Transport Canada spent six years drafting the new regulations to align with standards in the United States and European Union. 

Under new regulations, pilots would have to stop work after nine to 13 hours straight. It all depends on the time of day they start, as well as how many times they take off and land. Current rules let them fly for up to 14 hours.

Changes to regulations were announced at a new fit to fly workshop in Gatineau, Que. They will focus on supporting pilots with mental health issues and substance abuse disorders. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

New bottle-to-throttle regulations

Garneau announced he's also taking steps to address mental health and potential substance abuse issues. 

He's pursing amendments to fit-for-duty regulations to change the bottle-to-throttle rules.

If he is successful, pilots and other flight crew wouldn't be allowed to fly within 12 hours of drinking alcohol, rather than the current limit of eight hours. It comes after two incidents last year where pilots were caught flying under the influence.

"When a pilot is getting in an airplane that is filled with 200 people or more, that person has a critically important responsibility," Garneau told CBC News after his speech. "I want to ensure that we can make it as safe as possible."

Most major airlines already have the 12-hour policy in place, and have for years. 

It could take at least another year before the regulations come into force. Airlines would have a year to comply and smaller carriers would have four years.

'What's the rush?'

A group of airline operators says the new fatigue regulations could create new safety concerns. 

The country is already dealing with a pilot shortage, said John McKenna, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada. He estimates the proposed regulations could increase the demand for pilots by up to 30 per cent, meaning less experienced pilots could be hired to meet the demand.

"There already aren't enough pilots around as it is," he said. "So it's a concern for us ... that it is putting a lot of pressure on training pilots quicker and getting them in the pilot seats maybe with less hours on their books than they would have had five, six years ago." 

Fatigue needs to be managed and he's not saying no to changes, but "what's the rush?" he asked. Existing safety management systems already have a handle on this.

John McKenna, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, says the government's pilot fatigue rules are a serious safety concern. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

'I really don't see any doom and gloom'

While McKenna urges patience, some airlines are looking for ways to handle any possible changes. 

Aaron Speer, vice-president of flight operations for First Air, said that if fatigue rules result in current pilots flying less, there are two possible scenarios: Either airlines will operate fewer flights — which isn't something operators would want to see happen — or they're going to need to hire more pilots.

That means pilots could move up the ranks faster. Speer said that shouldn't impact passenger safety.

Aaron Speer, vice-president of flight operations at First Air, sees no 'doom and gloom' scenarios with the new regulations. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

"I really don't see any doom and gloom scenarios coming of that," Speer said. 

"The bottom line is there is a phenomenal amount of training that goes into making anybody a pilot. And before we let anyone operate our aircraft we've gone through a rigorous training program."

No matter what, pilots will be skilled, trained and the public isn't at any risk, he said.

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Ashley Burke is a video journalist at CBC News Ottawa who files for multiple platforms. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca