Air Canada employees feared they would be punished by managers if they reported safety concerns, according to a never-before released report from a 2013 government inspection of the country’s largest airline.
The finding by Transport Canada raises questions about the strength of the airline’s internal system meant to flag risks before they become safety problems.
But the public is only learning about the five-year-old inspection results now because Air Canada had taken the federal government to court to try to block portions of the records from being released through Access to Information legislation. The airline said disclosure would be “misleading” and bad for business.
“Some employees felt uncomfortable about submitting a safety report because of the possibility of being interviewed, for the purpose of safety report investigation, by the same person who had the authority to take disciplinary measures,” inspectors found in a October 2013 audit of the airline’s internal safety management system, obtained by the Star.
In April, a federal court judge ruled that Air Canada failed to show how public disclosure could result in material financial harm to the airline. The records were finally released in late September.
Air Canada said in a statement that the inspection report “references isolated observations and is not representative.”
“No employee has ever been disciplined for filing a safety report at Air Canada,” spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said. “Air Canada actively encourages safety reporting by all employees.”
Last year, the airline’s staff filed nearly 26,000 internal safety management system reports, covering anything from a tripping hazard in a hangar to a plane taking a “go-around” because the conditions are not right for a landing, Fitzpatrick said. “(This is) evidence that our employees are highly engaged safety professionals,” he said.
Large airlines in Canada must have a safety management system (SMS) to internally monitor potential safety hazards. As part of its regulation of the aviation industry, Transport Canada increasingly relies on airlines’ self monitoring, which the regulator audits with periodic inspections.
However, a key component of SMS is that all employees — from maintenance workers to pilots — feel comfortable flagging potential problems, and Transport Canada’s findings at Air Canada raise concerns about whether the airline’s self-monitoring can be trusted, critics say.
“(If) there is real potential it’s not working because people won’t report (problems), the wheels fall off a bit,” said Mark Laurence, national chair of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association.
Air Canada said its safety management system is effective.
“We safely operate nearly 1,600 flights daily, or more than one flight every minute of the day on average, and in 2017 we carried 48 million people, more than the entire population of Canada, who arrived safe at their destinations,” Air Canada’s Fitzpatrick said in a statement.
Air Canada went to federal court in March 2017 to block the disclosure of portions of two surveillance reports: an October 2013 assessment of Air Canada and a June 2014 inspection of its low-cost subsidiary, Air Canada Rouge.
Though the details of these government surveillance reports are not public, they are obtainable through Access to Information legislation. Transport Canada had initially planned to release the Air Canada reports in response to a 2016 Access to Information request seeking the latest inspection reports for several major Canadian airlines, but Air Canada appealed the decision to federal court.
During the original inspections, federal agents found both Air Canada and Rouge were non-compliant in areas of “safety oversight” and “training, awareness and competence.” (The non-compliance found in the reports relates to the airlines’ own safety monitoring systems, not the safety of the planes themselves.)
During the Air Canada Rouge assessment, Transport Canada saw two cabin safety instructors incorrectly demonstrating emergency procedures during a training session. “In both instances, the partner instructor did not recognize their partner’s error. The errors were pointed out by the students attending the class,” the surveillance report found.
Air Canada said in a statement that these findings were from more than four years ago, and the company acted immediately “to reconcile differences in interpretation and, most importantly, to address the issues raised” by Transport Canada.
Both airlines’ safety management systems were reinspected: Air Canada’s in 2015 and Rouge’s in 2016. Again, Transport Canada found neither was compliant in the areas of “safety oversight” or “quality assurance.”
Neither Air Canada nor Rouge has any outstanding safety compliance issues, the regulator said. Transport Canada says the country has one of the safest, most secure air transportation systems in the world.
The reports contain summaries of the problems flagged by inspectors, which range from “minor” administrative issues to “major” findings described by the government as system-wide failures that will take more time and effort to fix. The two findings described in this article — employees being fearful of reporting safety problems and instructors giving incorrect safety demonstrations — are classified as “moderate,” which Transport Canada says would likely be corrected with a “simple modification to a process.”
Air Canada said keeping inspections of airline’s internal safety systems confidential encourages employees to be more candid when reporting concerns. In court filings, an Air Canada managing director warned that the technical documents could be misconstrued without proper context, causing the airline’s reputation to be unfairly damaged. “It is highly prejudicial to an airline’s competitive position for its safety record to be questioned on the basis of information that is inaccurate or is otherwise misleading,” the director said.
To avoid potential misunderstanding, the judge suggested Transport Canada release the reports with an “explanatory note.” The note, published under Transport Canada letterhead, was the product of a back-and-forth between lawyers from the airline and government.
The final copy reads, in part, “A finding of non-compliance should not be understood to mean an airline does not comply with regulatory requirements. Rather, a finding of non-compliance may indicate that the airline could implement better practices and procedures that are viewed by inspectors as being a better means of implementing regulatory requirements.”
This language is concerning for Virgil Moshanky, a retired judge whose inquiry into a 1989 plane crash near Dryden, Ont., led to sweeping changes of Canada’s aviation safety system. The note, he said, suggests the regulator is more concerned with protecting the reputation of the airlines than standing by the findings of its inspectors.
“It’s double speak. It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Jesse McLean is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @jesse_mclean