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Staying in the Zone

October 23, 2015  By Walter Heneghan

I was thinking this past summer about the pain the industry has experienced as a result of the broad downturn in the economy. Across the board, from east to west, flying hours were reduced in mining and exploration, and in the oil patch, with the added pain of a reduction in “ad-hoc” work. If not for the dozens of large wildfires in Western Canada, the industry may well have experienced a major retrenchment, (something that in my opinion is long overdue).

In tough times, there are additional pressures on company finances. One need only look at the carnage in Alberta’s oil patch to see this. Massive lay-offs coupled with downward pressure on suppliers to “sharpen their pencils” places additional stresses on all aspects of the supply chain. This phenomenon is in full swing out west, and the helicopter industry has not been immune. There have been moves taken by some operators to limit per diems paid to pilots, reduce daily rates and salaries and modify schedules and touring rotations to save money. There may even be a movement to the “contractor” model whereby pilots and AMEs are hired short term, on contract, without benefits and with no job security. The question one must ask though is this: Is safety compromised in a down economy?

Let’s start with government. Cuts to safety programs appear to start at the top, with Global News having reported earlier this spring that federal government budgets for funding programs at Transport Canada (TC) have been reduced, from a drop of 32 per cent in the Dangerous Goods directorate to almost 10 per cent for Aviation Safety. Further cuts are programmed in the funding levels for safety programs across the board at TC through 2018. These cuts can’t be good for industry oversight.

What about the data? When I began writing this column, I was curious if the TSB data would reveal any trends. There are two possible trains of thought here. Would fewer flying hours lead to fewer accidents or would the downturn encourage corner-cutting behaviour, resulting in more carnage?

While the available data does not provide a rate specifically for the helicopter industry, published accident rates for all aircraft in Canada, do offer some insight. Overall rates have decreased, year to year, every year from 2005 to 2014 (except for 2008), going from 6.7 accidents per 100,000 hours to 4.6 per 100,000 in 2014. Specifically for the helicopter industry, during the 2008/2009 recession, accident totals decreased from 42 to 29 in 2010. The TSB data therefore appears to indicate that a recession does not lead to increased numbers of accidents or significant shifts in the accident rate. This is good news.


Everybody involved in the helicopter industry has a tough task these days. There is significant pressure on costs, so operators are looking at every cost centre. I spoke with one owner over the summer who has shifted completely to contract employees, downsizing from more than 30 full time staff to four and now using term contract pilots and AMEs almost exclusively. In addition, he is still in a cockpit, running the company and doing business development!

I also have concerns about the “contractor” model, especially in a down economy. Will these companies hire the best talent available or the cheapest? Will modified crew rotations lead to more fatigue, more error and more accidents? Will contract employees feel equally empowered to “speak up” when they see sub-standard maintenance practice or when they are pressured to extend their tours, push the weather or push their aircraft? I don’t have data to support one perspective (full time employees) over the other (contractor model), as the dominant paradigm during the 2008 recession was still the full time employee model but it may be worth watching.

But we can take measures. We can adopt the Tony Kern model of striving and acting as professional pilots and engineers to protect our customers and ourselves. We can continue to insist on being paid a fair wage for the skills we bring with us to the table. We can ground an aircraft that needs maintenance. Indeed, a common TC audit finding is that pilots verbally report unserviceability items to AMEs who then enter (or not) the item in the defect log.

Pilots: Write the defect in the journey log and the issue must be addressed. Period. Engineers: Change the part when it is out of tolerance. Owners: Never forget the golden rule: if you think safe and best practices are expensive, try having an accident.

Walter Heneghan is the vice-president for Health, Safety and Environmental Protection with the Summit Air Group of Companies, Ledcor Resources and Transportation, based in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada.


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