VANCOUVER - Transport Canada is planning to stop evaluating pilots who perform checks on their counterparts at the country's largest airlines and will instead give the responsibility to the operators, a change critics say erodes oversight and public safety.
Documents show Transport Canada made the decision in May when the House of Commons transport committee was reviewing aviation safety and subsequently recommended more on-site inspections generally of the airline industry instead of paper audits.
A risk assessment document and an internal letter from Transport Canada's director of national operations for civil aviation were obtained under an access to information request by the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, the bargaining agent for about 450 pilots, most of whom work for the federal government.
Transport Canada's evaluators test so-called check pilots for the large airlines, who in turn evaluate the pilots in their own organizations.
The letter says the changes will take place April 1 for airlines with planes that fly more than 50 passengers.
The accompanying risk assessment acknowledges Canada is moving away from the mainstream practices used in other countries.
"It could be argued that Canada's experience and relative maturity with systems-based surveillance will adequately complement this shift of responsibilities ... and therefore mitigate any concerns other states or trade associations may have with response to such a departure from globally accepted practices," the risk-assessment document says.
Canada is one of over 190 members of the International Civil Aviation Organization and has agreed to follow its recommended practices, including evaluating pilots twice a year.
Greg McConnell, chairman of the pilots association, said the changes are pushing Canada's aviation safety system onto the industry itself.
"I think it's very, very important that people understand we are getting closer to self-regulation all the time." he said in an interview. "It's just more cutting, more dismantling of the safety net."
The risk assessment says Transport Canada is having a problem hiring and retaining properly qualified inspectors. A spokesman with the pilots association said none of its inspectors will likely lose their job because of the changes.
The documents say transferring the responsibility is a "low risk."
Transport Minister Marc Garneau and officials in his department weren't available for an interview. The department says in an email it is focusing its oversight on areas of greater risk.
"Data has demonstrated that over the past five years, approved check pilots have had a very low failure rate (less than 0.2 per cent) when being monitored by Transport Canada. The department is confident that approved check pilots are exercising their delegation of authority properly," it says.
Conservative MP Kelly Block, a vice-chair on the Commons transport committee, said she's concerned the changes weren't brought to the committee during its study on aviation safety.
"When a parliamentary committee is seized with a topic and the department doesn't disclose this kind of relevant information ... I think that's very disturbing."
The committee recommended the government establish targets for more on-site safety inspections as opposed to auditing the safety management systems of the airlines. Transport Canada replied to the suggestion earlier this month, saying it recognizes the importance of a mix of systems-based inspections and spot checks.
New Democrat MP Robert Aubin, the committee's other vice-chair, said the decision was "curious" because Transport Canada said it was doing more oversight, not less.
"I have concerns if the pilots who evaluate their pilots are not evaluated by Transport Canada. We have to have the same standards," he said in an interview. "We have to increase the resources at Transport Canada to make sure we can do that job."
Liberal MP Judy Sgro, the committee's chairwoman, was not available for an interview.
The documents say putting additional inspection burdens on the airlines means extra human and financial tolls on them.
Block said the committee heard airlines already operate on tight financial margins and she believes they are just as concerned about safety.
"That's what you're left with, is believing that perhaps that (consumer) costs will have to go up in order to ensure that they are operating in a safe environment."
WestJet and Air Canada declined comment on the pending changes.