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U.S.-Europe upset with TC over weight restrictions

June 2, 2014  By The Canadian Press

June 2, 2014, Ottawa - The Harper government's decision to grant Bell Helicopter Canada a special weight exemption for one its aircraft strained relations between Transport Canada and aviation safety regulators in the U.S. and Europe, federal documents show.

The declaration, involving the Bell model 429, was made over
strenuous objections from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which complained that
Transport Canada kept them in the dark about the significant regulatory

The adjustment, also the subject of a
court challenge, increased the maximum weight gross weight limit to
3,400 kilograms, and allowed Bell to enter and recently win a
$172-million contract to provide 15 light helicopters to the coast

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press
under Access to Information showed both international agencies felt
sandbagged prior to the easing of the weight restriction in December


"EASA expressed disappointment that we
had not given them a heads up about this exemption and about our
intention to consider it," said a June 17, 2011 email from Transport
Canada's director of policy and regulatory authority.

Emails between the agencies say the
exception has also given the Mirabel, Que.-based company, a subsidiary
of U.S. conglomerate Textron, a competitive advantage in more than a
dozen other countries around the world.

Days after the complaint,
the department's director of national aircraft certification wrote to
the FAA that Canada have every intention of being "as transparent as
possible" on a decision "we know may have repercussions on the rotocraft
industry world."

U.S. and European officials were deeply
skeptical, worried about the impact on safety and wondered whether
Canada was making the change to just please Bell. They were also uneasy
about the secrecy and urged Canadian officials to bring the discussion
out of the back rooms.

"We must also consider whether this is an
industry-wide concern, or a single companies (sic) business concern,"
said a U.S. official, whose name was censored from an email, dated July
7, 2011.

"In other words, what's good for Bell may
or may not be good for the industry. If it is an industry wide issue,
we would welcome a public debate with industry and regulators to
consider the need for future rulemaking."

One day later, the Europeans added their voice saying: "it would be more beneficial to consider an open rule-making process."

Bell President Barry Kohler said his company is not the only one that has been granted weight exemptions at one time or another.

He said the manufacturer
is currently working with the FAA, EASA and the industry to modernize
the regulations that govern this issue.

The intent is to have rules that "more
accurately meet the needs of modern rotorcraft operations in a way that
will more efficiently introduce newer technologies that can improve
safety," he said in an email.

The added weight is critical for
commercial clients, such as helicopter ambulance and law enforcement,
"who need the increased range and load for emergency services, and is
increasingly important in remote (and) rural areas."

When it first heard Transport Canada was
considering a weight exemption in 2011, rival Airbus Helicopters Canada
warned in writing that would set "a dangerous precedent in the
helicopter industry, with safety driven certification being bypassed at
the request of a singe manufacturer rather than through the efforts of
an industry wide working group, as current practise."

The company has since launched a Federal Court challenge of the light helicopter tender process.

The Airbus letter stated other countries —
Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Ecuador, India, Malaysia,
Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Thailand, Venezuela and Vietnam — accept
Transport Canada certification and the decision would lead to "an unfair
global competition" and a "large, detrimental economic impact" for
rivals to Bell.

Kohler denied the company
has been given an unfair leg-up, saying the model 429 is at a
disadvantage because its older rivals were certified under less
stringent conditions and their acceptance has been "grandfathered."

When the company applied to the FAA for a
weight exemption similar to the one in Canada, it was turned down. U.S.
authorities noted that the relief sought, if granted, would put "29
rotocraft manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage owing to the
greater costs to certify and produce" their aircraft.

In its Aug. 13, 2012 ruling, the U.S.
agency said exemptions should "remain primarily a safety decision," not a
business decision.

The Europeans added separately that they
had not "been provided with clear evidence" that a new increased weight
limit "would benefit the sector."

Bell has submitted a petition for reconsideration to the FAA.

Transport Canada says it conducted a
safety risk assessment and concluded that "granting the exemption would
be acceptable provided certain design and operational conditions are

The department did not elaborate on the conditions.

"The department concluded that this
helicopter can work at the increased weight threshold to a maximum of
eight occupants while meeting the current high safety standards,"
spokeswoman Karine Martel said in an email.

Further, she said if other helicopters
makers wanted to apply for the same exemption their request "would be
given equal consideration and assessed on its own merit."


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