Reason for optimism
November 1, 2017 By Matt Nicholls
Fall is certainly a busy season for Fred Jones. The hardworking president/CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) continues to juggle a number of advocacy projects on behalf of the association including its work with Transport Canada (TC) on enhancing operational safety industry-wide, fatigue management regulations, the advisory circular on standards associated with H1 classified heliports and growing pressure from TC to respond to a recommendation from the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) on the subject of terrain awareness warning systems in helicopters (IFR operations).
And for Jones, there’s so much more. He’s also gearing up to play host to the association’s annually convention and tradeshow, set for Nov. 9-11 in Ottawa (see www.helicoptersmagazine.com/digital), and is back in the saddle in Ottawa following a busy summer of activities visiting operators in the field.
“I don’t know about you Matt, but it seems like I’m run off my feet,” Jones joked from his office in Ottawa. “You’d think I’d get the hang of this by now.”
Jones took some time to chat with Helicopters leading up to the HAC convention and trade show and discuss some of the issues facing the industry, what to expect at the big event, future market outlook and more.
What feedback have you received regarding the 2017 operating season from operators and how does this position the industry for 2018? Are there signs of optimism?
In some ways yes. You never know what will happen with the fire season, but fortunately, this was a very busy fire season for many of our members. It was a shot in the arm for the industry. There has also been more exploration going on, some mining companies have renewed their exploration deals, so we have seen pockets of activity on that front.
We have a long list of challenges as an industry, some of which are growing challenges, the arrival and exponential increase in the use of UAVs, the prospect of more conservative fatigue management regulations . . . and while they are a few years down the road, we try to be proactive about working to mitigate the damage they could cause. They are so restrictive that they could cause – and in their current form will cause – significant hardship for the helicopter industry. And we feel they will not improve safety.
What operators are having the most success right now and why? Does a diverse product base ensure more success?
Diversification is certainly not a new phenomenon and the larger, more mature operators – and even some of the smaller ones – are diversifying as a hedge against the boom-and-bust nature of the business, the seasonal realities of the industry. So, operators are adapting to new realities. The more mature companies are looking to specialize in aerial photography or wind turbine generation, de-icing, or other niche operations.
This is the first bright spot in our industry in recent memory, so more conservative operators are proceeding cautiously. Virtually anyone who is still operating at this stage has been through the difficult last nine years; there is every reason for operators to be cautious at this stage. Some are investing in new machines, some are investing in specialized machines, but everyone has been burned to some extent by the current economic drought that we have all experienced for the better part of a decade.
What is the latest on the fatigue management draft regulations? Can you give us an update?
The most offensive elements are the cumulative duty hours – they are going to make life most difficult for operators, followed closely behind by the removal of the zeroing provisions and the significantly more conservative flight time limits that have been imposed (for more, see “A Dire Course,” page 34, Oct. Helicopters). There are other irritants, but they are less significant than those three items I would argue.
The current status of it is, the comment period closed on Sept. 29 and HAC made a submission as part of the association coalition (nine Canadian associations) that is opposing the draft regulations. We also made a submission on our own, as did some of the other associations. The comment period is closed, written submissions are in, TC is in the process of completing their analysis of comments, which is where they go through them all, item by item, and decide if it’s a valid concern. Then they make an amendment or they dismiss the concern and provide some rational for it and refuse to change that part.
We are scheduled to go to Gazette 2 in the Spring 2018, but we are continuing to argue that the consultation process was incomplete and the conclusion is misguided and won’t improve safety. What also offends HAC significantly is the Cabinet Directive on Regulatory Management has been violated in many ways. There has never been a risk assessment conducted and these draft regulations are not proportional to the risk that fatigue presents in the Canadian helicopter industry. We believe it is a badly misguided regulatory initiative in many ways.
How did it get to this stage and what is the best course of action now?
It’s difficult to say. I have been involved since the start, have never missed a meeting. HAC has always been at the pointy end of the discussions. My view of why this has moved in this direction is that there was a significant consensus that occurred between the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC) and the organized labour during the Working Group’s deliberations. My belief is that the Working Group’s leadership latched on to that consensus and moved forward with it and made whatever minor adjustments they considered absolutely necessary where other segments of the commercial aviation community were concerned. HAC believes that is why we are facing airline-like fatigue management regulations.
And we are such a diverse industry here in Canada – and I’m not just talking about the helicopter industry, but the fixed-wing, air taxi and commuter community as well. We serve a large geographically diverse country that requires float operators, helicopter operators, large carriers, commuter operators . . . a broad spectrum of commercial aviation to provide service to Canadians.
I would argue from HAC’s perspective, that the proposed regulations are more suited for the large international scheduled carriers – they are not suitable for other industry segments. In the end, Canadians will pay the price; they will lose service, it will be more costly service, but first and foremost, what TC is proposing won’t improve safety.
So what are the next steps?
It depends on the extent to which TC is persuaded by the comments that they receive. They really haven’t been listening to the concerns of the associations. And time will tell whether they listen at this stage or not. My concern is it’s more and more difficult to change the regulations the further down the regulatory process you get. They can’t really make major revisions at this stage without having to send it back to Gazette 1. Certainly they can make more conservative changes without sending it back to Gazette 1, but it’s much easier to make amendments to a draft earlier in the process. So, they are either faced with marching forward with the existing ill-conceived draft or making minor adjustments to it – or admitting that they have been proceeding down the wrong track and reversing course – making changes in response to some of the concerns that have been raised by industry.
What are the chances of that at this stage?
TC says they are open to change, but they have been saying that fairly regularly in the process and have refused to make many changes. So, it is difficult to say. HAC’s view is we are at a point in the process where TC staff has reached their own conclusions and they have been pretty single-minded that the regulatory proposals are consistent with the fatigue-related science. So, the changes that will occur at this stage are likely to be as a result of intervention by the Treasury Board or TC staff coming alive to the potential for disaster that these new regulations present.
The fatigue management regulations notwithstanding, how solid is the relationship between the Canadian helicopter industry and TC?
TC is less and less engaged with the industry. Inspectors in recent history have had less and less contact with industry except in the course of audits, surveillance or inspections – which is unfortunate. They seem more inclined to stay in the office and push paper. The budget cutbacks at TC do not help. And inspectors with less and less operational experience are being used, replacing inspectors with industry experience in an aging demographic. This presents some real challenges for industry. To use fixed wing inspectors to oversight helicopter operations – they don’t understand our segment of the aviation community.
TC inspectors also seem more standoffish. They don’t consult with operators the way they used to. They have said we are not consultants, and the industry gets that, but at the same time, the relationship between the operator and TC inspector has always been important. In many ways, they have cut the industry adrift. There are fewer resources available to operators for assistance. We had a productive relationship with the regulator years ago where there could be those conversations with an inspector at an operation to find a mutually agreeable way forward. More and more, that’s not the case today.
Doesn’t this disconnect compromise safety? Is the Canadian helicopter industry as safe as it is can possibly be?
Operators are constantly innovating to find safer and more efficient ways to do business. They have always taken a leadership role in this regard for the betterment of the industry. They always find ways to find less risk in operations, for themselves and for their customers – they want to do it right, as a rule. Helicopter operators by nature are versatile, innovative . . . these are some of their best qualities. And whether that means new technologically advanced aircraft or hardware, digital fuel controls, health usage monitoring, FDM systems in aircraft or computer technology to measure exceedences on aircraft systems . . . I would also include the OEMs and suppliers in this pursuit as well. We are safer and more efficient than we were 30 years ago.
What highlights can you share about the upcoming HAC conference in Ottawa Nov. 9-11?
We have tried several new things at this conference. For example, we are more safety focused with educational programs and we are holding a safety forum themed, “Advancing safety in challenging economic circumstances.” We are bringing in some international speakers to try to raise the profile of safety. We have also engaged with TC to help structure the program for the safety forum, and they participated with us in selecting panelists, themes and speakers. We are also trying to revitalize our relationship with TC because fewer and fewer inspector staff are permitted to attend the convention. We get the senior-most TC officials, and we appreciate that, but we aren’t getting the rank and file inspectors in attendance to dialogue with our members – which is where we get a lot of value.
How is the helicopter industry adapting to the introduction of unmanned technologies into the operating environment? What changes do you foresee with UAVs and helicopters?
They are becoming a significant and growing part of the commercial aviation community. Some of our members have engaged in that line of work, but not as many as I had expected. That’s OK, but it just seems to me for many operators, it’s a natural complement to their existing manned helicopter service. It would offer customers the option of using UAVs for some operations – a cheaper option potentially and a more efficient way to carry out an operation without losing the business to another company. There will be some operations that continue to be only conducted by manned helicopters but there are other types of operations that will be able to be efficiently conducted by UAVs – survey work, beyond visual line of sight operations (BVLOS), survey power line patrol, pipeline patrol . . . these are just a few examples. There are some safety hurdles that need to be addressed before that happens, but I think everyone understands there is huge potential for UAVs.
What trends are you watching for industry heading into 2018?
We have seen some real advancement in technologies over the past few months such as equipment and training for human external loads. This is an area I expect will advance in Canada with the technologies that have been introduced.
On the helicopter operations side, there was a time not too long ago where some operators were expecting to see an increase in the use of multi-engine aircraft. But the challenge has always been the cost of these aircraft. Even though customers may have been interested in using them, they also put a much larger dent in a budget than a single-engine aircraft, which have been traditionally quite safe even for long-line operations etc. I think sometimes it is a difficult case to make from a customers point of view and a business point of view. So, we haven’t seen as much expansion in that area as some operators may have expected.
Other than that, I really don’t see major changes coming for 2018. For most operators and OEMs, it’s just business as usual. Yes, back to busy and bustling energy-intensive business for everyone.