TSB blames acceptance of unsafe practices for air taxi risks

An air taxi waits for passengers in this undated photo.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board says air taxi operators generally put passengers at risk because they’re more likely to accept unsafe practices and fail to manage operational hazards.

The TSB released the results of a special investigation Thursday in Ottawa. The board painted a picture of an industry willing to take safety risks that have been stamped out of the larger commercial airline sector.

“Air taxi safety is not a new issue,” said TSB investigator-in-charge Glen Whitney. He and his team conducted interviews with 125 people at three dozen companies to compile their results. He said the business culture has allowed unnecessary risks to creep into the industry.

“I’m not talking about flagrant rule violations,” said Whitney. “I’m talking about a gradual drift that occurs over time with every successful (though not necessarily safe) flight. For instance: flying overweight, flying into marginal weather or forecasted icing, or flying with minimal fuel reserves.”

In some cases, for instance, Whitney said it was impossible for pilots to know if their planes were over weight because no scales were available. However, Whitney said operators may not see this as unsafe “Because they’re viewed as part of getting the job done.”

Air taxis are smaller operations that use nine-seat or smaller aircraft and tend to fly from smaller airports into remote areas with fewer or even non-existent weather facilities or navigational aids. Though operations vary widely, a typical run would see an air taxi pilot take tourists to remote fishing camps, or workers into camps far from urban areas.

The agency analyzed data over a 15 year period and found that while the overall number of air taxi accidents was decreasing, the number of fatal accidents – and the number of people killed – stayed relatively constant.

A graph showing the number of air taxi accidents, fatal crashes, and deaths between 2000 and 2014 (source: Transportation Saftey Board).

“Although these vital air links have helped build Canada and sustain its population, air taxi operations are at higher risk than other sectors of the commercial aviation industry,” said TSB Chair Kathy Fox.

“We found that accidents in this sector of aviation boil down to two underlying factors: the acceptance of unsafe practices and the inadequate management of operational hazards.”

Over time, larger scheduled airlines have developed safety management systems to emphasize safety and minimize risks. As a result, crashes and fatalities have been on a consistent downward trend. No such trend exists in the air taxi industry.

“They’re operating in a high-risk area, really,” said Whitney. The board noted a high number of crashes happened when planes departed in fair weather, but ran into clouds and worsening conditions.

“The need for air taxi operations is not going away”

Kathy Fox, TSB Chair

The TSB is making four new recommendations related to better training, safety management, and safety regulation.

“Really it’ll come down to the training and bringing everyone up to that standard,” said Whitney, noting a number of air taxi operators go beyond their base requirements, but that cost pressures in the industry are growing.

On top of that, the board wants air taxis to collect and report information on their flights and hours flown. Currently, “We cannot calculate taxi fatalities by operational hour,” said Fox.

The new recommendations are on top of 22 others that have already been issued, but not acted upon.

“The need for air taxi operations is not going away,” said Fox. “But at the same time, air taxi flight crews and their passengers should not have to accept a reduced level of safety compared to those who fly on scheduled airlines.”

Categories: Safety