A key safety improvement designed to save lives in floatplane crashes has been postponed again, this time due to COVID-19 challenges buffeting the aviation industry.
Inflatable life-jackets — to be worn on flights of up to nine people — were to become mandatory Sept. 6, a date set in March 2019 when Transport Canada approved the measure. The industry regulator gave floatplane operators 18 months to come up with suitable reusable personal flotation devices (PFDs).
Now CBC News has learned that one week before the September deadline, Transport Canada quietly granted floatplane companies an extra nine months, postponing PFDs for passengers until June 2021.
The extension to next summer has infuriated victims of a B.C. seaplane tragedy who have been fighting for safety changes for over a decade.
“The fact that they claim it is COVID-related makes no sense,” says Barbara Glenn. “Just pass the damn [measure] already.”
Safety experts say inflatable PFDs worn by passengers are superior to life-jackets stored under seats, which can be forgotten or inaccessible in a crash.
‘Let’s hope that there will be no more deaths’
Glenn was one of just two survivors of a seaplane crash off Saturna Island in Dec. 2009 that killed six passengers, including her husband.
All of the victims drowned after surviving the impact. Glenn and the pilot swam free as the plane sank.
“I naively believed after our crash, with the loss of six lives, that things would change,” says Glenn. “It only makes obvious sense, but sadly the government does not operate on the obvious.”
Her frustration is shared by Patrick Morrissey, whose wife and infant daughter drowned in the crash.
“There have been roadblocks upon roadblocks … all the way along the way, of implementation of these PFDs, which is a simple fix. It’s not rocket science,” says Morrissey. “Let’s hope that there will be no more deaths between now and this delay.”
Since the 2009 Saturna tragedy, there have been at least eight drownings following floatplane crashes in Canada; in Quebec, northern Ontario, south-central B.C. and the Northwest Territories.
Floatplane industry hit by ‘triple whammy’
Transport Canada and the floatplane industry say operators have been hit by a “triple whammy” caused by COVID-19, which made the September deadline for PFDs impossible to meet.
The regulator says aviation business in Canada is down 90 per cent overall; PFDs have to be found that can withstand repeated disinfection; and there is a shortage of personal flotation devices because many manufacturers switched to producing personal protection equipment (PPE) due to the pandemic.
“Nine months was chosen to allow … suppliers to ramp up production,” Transport Canada stated in a email to CBC News. “It will also provide time to identify appropriate cleaning and disinfection processes, allowing time for operators to implement the new rules before summer 2021.”
The decision came after lobbying from the industry.
“I don’t know if there was pressure put on Transport Canada from back east, but yes, we on the West Coast were pushing them to come up with information,” says Vince Crooks, spokesperson for the B.C. Floatplane Operators Association.
‘There’s no bad guy in the story’
The floatplane industry resisted mandatory PFDs for passengers in the past.
Transport Canada documents from 2011 obtained by CBC News found operators worried that forcing passengers to wear PFDs would scare off business and add to their costs.
But the industry insists that’s not the case now.
“There’s no bad guy in the story. None of us are pushing back and saying ‘no,'” says Glenn Priestley, executive director of the Northern Air Transport Association, which represents more than 30 companies.
“It’s a triple whammy of things that have that have devastated the entire aviation industry. [We] take safety … very, very seriously.”
Harbour Air, North America’s biggest floatplane operator, says it obtained Transport Canada approval of its own “innovative” PFD design in the spring — just as the pandemic hit.
“This much-needed extension … will allow Harbour Air the time needed to properly produce the newly developed PFD and get them in place for the travelling public in a safe and structured manner,” says the Richmond B.C.-based company.
Delay ‘unfortunate’: TSB
The Transportation Safety Board (TSB), which investigated the 2009 Saturna crash and recommended inflatable PFDs be worn by passengers, is disappointed by the postponement.
TSB Chair Kathy Fox calls the delay “unfortunate,” stating mandatory life-jackets would “substantially reduce the risks associated with commercial seaplane operations.”
Another deadline remains intact: Transport Canada will require floatplane pilots to receive underwater escape training by 2022.
But another key TSB recommendation — that pop-out windows be retrofitted in the country’s estimated 700 floatplanes— has never been implemented by Transport Canada.
Some companies have installed them voluntarily.
‘It’s a no-brainer’
Priestley says he’s sensitive to those disappointed by the latest delay in requiring passengers to wear PFDs.
“I’m sympathetic,” he says. “But … it’s just important that we put the rules in place that are effective, at the right time.”
Patrick Morrissey and Barbara Glenn believe the right time was more than 10 years ago.
“It’s a no-brainer, it should be done now,” says Morrissey.
Glenn thinks there’s only one way the issue will hit home for the industry and its regulator.
“It won’t be until someone they love and care for, or someone of ‘importance and power’ is involved and killed in a crash because they did not have a PFD available,” says Glenn, “then they will deem it important enough.”
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