Accepting The Challenge
October 23, 2015 By Matt Nicholls
He’s the biggest advocate for the helicopter industry in this country and when you have the opportunity to stop by and meet up with Fred Jones, the energetic president and CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC), you certainly must capitalize on the chance – especially when you are in the Capital Region.
Helicopters caught up with Jones in late August at the Helicopter Association of Canada’s brand new office in Ottawa to have an open discussion about several key issues: the upcoming HAC Western conference and trade show, the growing influences of UAVs, and more. As always, Jones was more than happy to share his point of view – and he couldn’t stop beaming about the new digs.
Helicopters: What was your take on the 2015 season and what have you heard from operators?
FJ: “2015 was a very slow one from a growth and revenue standpoint, a tough year for many operators and certainly the OEMs. Fortunately, the fire season was a robust one and it was a shot in the arm for the industry, which has come through some rough years recently. It was shaping up to be a bleak year with the price of oil down and the mining industry very slow. This was a real bonus for the industry as a whole.”
Helicopters: Let’s talk about key issues affecting the industry. What will be the most pressing concern – other than the taciturn economy – affecting operators in the months and years ahead?
FJ: “It will certainly be the flight and duty time issue and it is difficult to say if it will be one year or five years before we get around to it again.
Transport Canada [TC] published in Gazette 1 a Notice of Intent [NOI] and it was intriguing to me why they would use the NOI construct. I can only remember maybe twice that TC has used in my 20 years in Ottawa. Usually they go to Gazette 1, get the comments back, take a certain amount of time to review them and disposition them, then they proceed to Gazette 2. But the reasons for the NOI I believe were many. First, a federal election this year was an issue; they were not going to publish anything at all, not even the most benign regulatory amendments. And flight and duty time is a complex issue under ordinary circumstances. TC reduced the scope of the regulation by 95 per cent between what it was they were proposing last September and what was in the NOI. And I think principally, it was going to be a very complicated drafting exercise.
What’s unclear to me is what will TC do post election. It’s uncertain how quickly a new minister will be prepared to move on these new regulations, particularly given their challenging nature in the run up to the NOI. And with the coalition of associations and the entire industry opposing it, calls to MPs and from MPs to the minister – there is a lot going on. It is also difficult to know whether this will be a priority for a new minister.
Potentially they could go forward with the NOI items – there is only a list of four or five in this NOI, all of which deal with CARS 705, airline operations. They may also roll others into this same Gazette 1 publication. So, they could take what they have in the NOI and add in other elements affecting other segments of the industry. I don’t think they would do it without consulting again in some form or another.
Helicopters: So, how do you think the issue will be rectified?
FJ: If the new minister comes in and says, Let’s do what is best from a safety perspective, I think TC staff are going to be hard pressed to articulate it. The TSB has virtually never identified a fatigue-related cause from the accidents that they have investigated. The pilots will give you anecdotes here and there, and the airline pilots will talk about working the backside of the clock, but the reality is, it is a hard safety case to make. There is very little empirical evidence.
TC crafted regulations that were fashioned after the growing consensus that existed between the airline pilots and their employers – and at the same time it ended up straying way off the anchor points in the scientific data which were supposed to be our guiding principle in the working group deliberations. This is unfortunate, because the consensuses were built around airline principles and not necessarily for small seasonal float operators or helicopter operators.
Helicopters: Where is all of this going?
FJ: I think they are going to have to consult again, determine whether they are going to proceed with the NOI elements and then do a consultation to figure out how to proceed with the rest of the industry – and for CARS 705 because they have made it clear that they are not done with 705 yet. What it is in the NOI is just the beginning.
Helicopters: Let’s talk about safety. Are operators maximizing their own safety responsibilities, creating appropriate safety cultures at their operations? Is the industry on the right track?
FJ: I think part of it is defining industry best practices . . . and you will see that commitment from HAC at the convention in November. It’s a credit to our committees because they do the heavy lifting in this area. The next step for best practices is to educate operators and flight crews on the content of the best practices. What you are going to see at this year’s convention is we are rolling out a new concept. We are calling it a “Blue Sky Certificate,” which will be a certificate evidencing a course of education orienting operators – and their employees – to the context of our best practices. We are rolling it out with the utility flight operation best practice. At the end of the course, following an exam, participants will receive a certificate saying you have been oriented and educated on the content of the best practice.
Helicopters: How can you try to influence operators who are not members of HAC to elevate their safety commitment?
FJ: We conducted a survey showing our reach in Canada. It was determined that HAC members operate 80 per cent of the commercial helicopters turning the blades in Canada. This is better penetration than any other association, so I am quite pleased with this. However, I would say the difficulty is partly financial, partly that smaller operators do not have the time or spare capacity to look at issues that are three to five years out on their radar – flight and duty times, for example. But if we ignore this, we will be hit by it. However, if we can develop the best practices and this Blue Sky Certificate, then the customers will drive operators, whether they are members or not, to take the course. And my policy with the association is, what we do – we do for the whole industry. We do not limit access to our best practices; we do not limit access to our professional development courses, or our training courses. You have to lead with value so that operators of all sizes can see what they are getting for their membership dollar.
Helicopters: Generally speaking, do you feel the industry as a whole is getting safer?
FJ: The statistics certainly reveal that it is. Last year was our first in several years where we had no fatal accidents. We have had one this year that I am aware of, but the numbers appear to be declining. I wouldn’t begin to attribute this to any particular cause or intervention – but it is clear there is something changing in the culture.
Helicopters: When you think about hours flown and the number of helicopters in the skies across the country at any one time, this is a great accomplishment.
FJ: IHST’s initiatives, HAC’s best practices, SMS – they are all driving this commitment to educating flight crews and companies about how to create a sound safety culture.
Helicopters: Let’s talk about UAVs. How is the UAV culture changing the landscape in Canada and how can operators react and capitalize on its growth?
FJ: It’s changing quite rapidly and it’s really amazing. When I started at the association almost seven years ago, I encouraged operators to embrace UAV technology. They are best positioned to promote it and sell what emerging technology to their customers. Now, they can offer a range of services and say, given the mission that you have described, it may be better done with a UAV. If you want filming, if the operation is close in, not beyond the line of sight, or is at a particularly low level, perhaps you can do it cheaper, safer, and more efficiently using a UAV than a conventional helicopter. And then there are some new opportunities for pipeline, power line patrol, aerial survey work, or other areas that could be more hazardous to operate a helicopter. There are many opportunities here for helicopter operators.
Helicopters: What about safety and the growing UAV culture. How do we keep the skies safe?
FJ: The scariest part of UAVs for me is not so much commercial operators; it’s the recreational ones. And then there are the ones and the ones that just don’t understand the hazard a UAV can present on final approach of an aircraft at a major airport. That’s the crazy part – some people out there just don’t know.
The next scary chapter – and I don’t believe TC has it under control yet – are the recreational users. I am more comfortable with commercial operators, because they are just line of sight right now and are operating under a SFOC permit. The next frontier – and they have already been discussing the regulations for this segment – is beyond line of sight operations where you will have a point of view camera mounted on the UAV and the pilot could be sitting in his bedroom or basement somewhere flying this thing around looking at a computer screen and getting visual cues shot from the UAV. I think the UAV community, however, has taken a very responsible stance on this with a requirement for sense-and-avoid technology and remote termination of the flight, qualifications for the pilot, this kind of thing.
Helicopters: Were there other issues of potential concern that have been solved heading into the New Year?
FJ: One of the big ones operators were in line to deal with was responsible aerodrome development. Helicopter operators were potentially heavily impacted by it. As it turns out, they have been exempted completely from the application of this regulation. I think this is mainly because helicopter operators haven’t caused a big problem – and regulators as a rule tend to respond to issues raised. This issue had its genesis in some of the high profile float operators that were generating noise around communities and the airports that sprung up out of nowhere in the oil patch in northern Alberta.
Ultimately, what the minister decided to do is to move forward with a regulation that recognizes that if you are operating a certified heliport, there already is an obligation to consult. These are the ones that provide scheduled service, they exist in a built up area or it is in the public interest, for example.
There also haven’t been a lot of high profile problems associated with operators establishing temporary helipads or bases for helicopter operators across Canada. It is a complicated issue because helicopters are so transient, they can set up a temporary helipad to transport school kids back and forth across a river during freeze up or break up in a remote community, or set up a helipad for firefighting operations. Helipads like this are here-today-gone-tomorrow operations – up for two weeks, four weeks and then they are gone again. You just don’t create a helipad in the same way you create a new airport.
In the end, TC just decided to exclude helicopter operators, helipads and heliports from the applicability of the new regulation, which we were pleased with. It had the potential to be a big problem, so we devoted a lot of time and effort to the issue.
Helicopters: What opportunities do you foresee for operators in 2016?
FJ: We are all hoping the oil and gas and resource sectors will open up a bit because it was booming for so long, but with the price of oil and the economy being down, it has affected our business is a big way. Fires are always a wild card and you never know who to believe from season to season, and as long as there have been helicopter operators, they have been speculating on what will happen. So, trying to predict it is really a mugs game.
Helicopters: It seems like more operators are looking to diversify in the U.S. and internationally.
FJ: There certainly are more doing this. I think the ones that are survivors in our industry are the ones that can mitigate the feast and famine cycle that occurs with fires. If that is the only tool in your arsenal and it rains all summer, you could be hurting.
The evolution for operators in our business has been to try to diversify – in Medevac work or aerial survey or specialized photography, or moving your machines to the other side of the world during the winter here to try to offset a slow winter season in Canada.
It would really be nice to see the industry turn around and have a sustainable future. Our industry is closely connected to the economy.
I realize that, in the resource sector that it has been a challenge the past few years… but I am hoping things will turn around for a stronger tomorrow.