AIN Blog: Torqued: Learning from Our Neighbors to the North

 - June 1, 2014, 1:02 AM

Many of us in aviation in the U.S. haven’t been paying much attention to our neighbor to the north. Canadians are known for being somewhat quiet and unassuming. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that quiet and unassuming doesn’t mean they’re not busily working on practical solutions to important issues. In fact, there’s a lot going on in Canada that we in the U.S. could learn from in the aviation arena. Canada has been the global leader in safety management systems, a favorite topic of mine, having adopted SMS requirements in 2008 and 2009 for its airports, air carriers and repair stations. (In the U.S., the FAA has issued and withdrawn notices of proposed rulemaking, extended notices or just plain failed to take steps to finalize rulemaking.) 

In addition to SMS, two other examples came to my attention recently that further indicate why we should be paying a little more attention to what’s going on north of the border. The first example is the Greater Toronto Airport Authority’s (GTAA) review and recommendations related to the extreme cold weather that affected Pearson International Airport for several days this past January, a situation not that different from the one experienced at many airports south of the border. And the other is how Canada has been handling the introduction of unmanned aircraft into commercial operations.

The GTAA recently released its report and recommendations after a 90-day review conducted in response to tremendous criticism the airport received for instituting a ground stop at Pearson International Airport that cancelled hundreds of flights and created a travel nightmare. Some friends of mine happened to get caught up in that travel mess and spent two unscheduled nights in New York. With hotels booked solid because of the cold-induced travel chaos unfolding in many parts of the country, they were lucky to have relatives to spend those nights with or they would have ended up like thousands of other unfortunate passengers, sleeping in crowded airport terminals. We had our own extreme weather “meltdown” here in the U.S. but I haven’t heard of any airport in the U.S. taking on such a public review of the havoc wreaked by this year’s extremely cold winter weather. So I was definitely interested in how Toronto handled its review and particularly the process that it used.

A number of things impressed me about the way the GTAA handled the review of the travel chaos that resulted from the ground stop (which, incidentally, was probably the right decision at the time given the reported impact of the unusually cold temperatures, including ice-covered ramps and runways, frozen fuel and so on). First of all, the chairman of the authority apologized. Then he promised to conduct a 90-day review of the airport’s winter operations and its response to extreme cold. Of particular note, he announced that the review would include not only the usual airport stakeholders–airlines, service providers and the government–but also passengers, airport workers and the public at large. The review also used a panel of experts from the Airports Council International to independently review the report and recommendations. This may seem like a no-brainer, but in fact many aviation reviews conducted by the FAA and airport authorities–in my experience–don’t include the critical voices of consumers, the public and ramp workers or even independent experts. Here, it’s refreshing to see that they were an integral part of the review process.

As promised, the report was made public on April 11 and included recommendations ranging from establishing early-warning criteria for irregular operations and better ways to communicate with passengers and the public in the event of irregular operations to ways to provide warming stations for employees. I was particularly impressed by this last recommendation because I worked for so many years out on the ramp during bitter cold Northeast winters. Finding places to warm up quickly was not always easy; sometimes we had to cram into truck cabs for a few minutes of heat to thaw our fingers and toes. Employees cannot work quickly or efficiently in bitter cold. If you want to improve productivity during extremely cold days and nights, you need to find ways to warm up workers who have to work outdoors. Kudos to Canada; I look forward to reading more about the follow-up actions. I recommend reading the full report.

UAV Integration

The other example I thought worth considering was Canada’s progress in UAVs. Most people I talk to in the U.S. have no idea how far ahead the Canadians are in integrating this technology into commercial operations. For example, since at least 2008 Canada has had regulations that define unmanned aerial vehicles and provide a system for small ones (defined as those weighing less than 35 kilograms/77.2 pounds) to be used for commercial purposes. While the FAA, as of this writing, has approved only one commercial operation in the Arctic, Transport Canada–the FAA’s equivalent–routinely approves drone use for various commercial purposes, such as agricultural and fisheries inspection, aerial surveying or mapping and many other uses. 

The Canadians require commercial UAV operators to complete a detailed, mission-specific application for a Special Flight Operations Certificate at least 20 days before a proposed operation to ensure appropriate levels of safety (which is defined as equivalent to safety in manned aircraft) and to carry liability insurance. However, Canadian requirements also allow that after positive experience with a particular operator, permission can be granted for long-term authority (up to a year) and non-site-specific authority. It’s too late to start this case-by-case approach today, but imagine how different the situation would be in the U.S. now if the FAA had taken this approach years ago?