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Impact of a pandemic, wet summer on Canadian heli operators

The growing federal indifference toward dire industry circumstances


October 19, 2020
By Fred Jones

Topics
Last year in Alberta alone, firefighting was carried out by 71 different helicopter operators from across the country, with roughly 90 per cent of those helicopters on a call-when-needed basis. (Image: Adobe Stock)


The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the global economy, but the aviation industry has been one of the sectors to have been most adversely affected. The Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) is concerned that many of our operator-members face extremely difficult circumstances, and are desperately in need of financial assistance in the form of further direct supplements or grants, or in the form of forgivable loans.

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We have already seen a number of helicopter business failures; and many other operators have suspended their Commercial Air Operator certificates because they cannot afford to carry the required insurance while aircraft sit on the ground. If you take a moment to examine the CTA decisions online, you will see, that since mid-March when the pandemic began, 20 helicopter air operators have surrendered their CTA licenses or had them suspended for a failure to meet the conditions of issuance because they were not able to maintain the required liability insurance, or had their licences cancelled.

Most of our operator-members carry out some essential services in one form or another, such as air ambulance, search and rescue, fire fighting, policing, powerline or pipeline patrol, or hydroelectric work. To make matters worse for air operators, who rely on fire-fighting during the summer season, wet weather this summer has meant fewer fires to fight – and very little revenue.

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For Canadians who were not threatened by fires this summer, this is a welcome environment, but in 2019 in Alberta for example, firefighting was carried out by 71 different helicopter operators from across the country – roughly 90 per cent of those helicopters were on a call-when-needed basis. Many operators count on casual summer work from firefighting, but they spent the summer sitting nearby a few Canadian hotspots waiting to be hired on-spec. If you consider for a moment the national statistics that are available on the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Fighting Centre’s (CIFFC) website, you will see that year-over-year statistics between 2019 and 2020 reveal a 90 per cent drop in the National Area Burned statistics. When you consider the national five-year average statistics, 2020 looks even less active.

This association is concerned that the combination of a slow summer firefighting season and the effects of Covid-19, which are not yet behind us, will result in more helicopter air operators not being available to carry out our important work. Some of that work includes essential helicopter services required across Canada – and particularly in northern Canada. The financial relief that has been extended to northern air operators is limited to operators with head offices in the north. It excludes operators that may have head offices in the south, or who may only have satellite bases in the north, or who provide service to the north without a northern base.

While HAC applauds Transport Canada for early efforts to mitigate the most pressing effects of the pandemic on the aviation community, there is a growing sense in Tower C that “the worst is over”. Early efforts focused on mitigating the effect of absent inspectors and the effect of limitations placed on gatherings of people, exams, ground schools, flight testing and flight training, etc. – activities that could not be safely carried out with people in close proximity to one another. As Transport Canada Inspectorate staff return to work, there is a growing sense that we are now in the recovery phase, and we can return to business as usual. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It will take our industry years to recover from the pandemic. Some operators will simply not survive. Regulatory initiatives are moving forward – even some of the most oppressive and costly ones like the new fatigue management regulations. Airlines are faced with implementing the new rules by December 2020 in the middle of a pandemic with no end in sight. Delaying the implementation of these regulations would not cost the government a penny. With indifference to the pain in the aviation community, however, regulators have instructed operators to implement the regulations as scheduled.

The fact that Transport Canada has indicated that operators should plan on implementing the new regulations is an indication of the growing insensitivity to dire industry circumstances. Other regulatory initiatives like Lightweight Flight Data Recorders march forward as well. Transport Canada needs to consider ways to mitigate the growing financial crisis that is occurring in the commercial aviation community before the fabric of air service across a vast country that depends on it will be significantly and adversely affected.


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