Monday, October 23, 2017

Air Taxi Safety

by Gerry Binnema, Civil Aviation Safety Inspector, System Safety, Pacific Region, Civil Aviation, Transport Canada

The air taxi industry is facing a number of significant challenges in today’s market conditions. The price of fuel is skyrocketing. Qualified staff are often hard to find and retain. Clients are becoming more safety conscious, but do not seem to be willing to pay a premium for better equipment and more experienced staff. How can you, as an operator, cope with these demands and continue to provide a safe and efficient operation?

A couple of years ago, there were several high-profile accidents in the Pacific Region involving air taxi operators. As a result, Transport Canada conducted a safety study on the air taxi sector, primarily focusing on the situation in the Pacific Region. This study has now been published and you can find it at: The report identifies a wide range of hazards, but many of them are simply beyond anyone’s control. For instance, there is very little that can be done about the mountainous terrain and poor weather that is typical of much of coastal British Columbia.

A recent Pacific Region Aviation Safety Council meeting focused on this report and sought operator input on what hazards were significant for them, and how they were coping with those hazards. The top hazards from the operator’s perspective involved staffing challenges, managing employee fatigue, and dealing with client pressures. Some ideas from this session are presented below.

Staffing challenges
It has probably never been more difficult to find qualified staff. In particular, aircraft maintenance engineers (AME) and helicopter pilots are in short supply. Even on the fixed wing side, air taxi operators are finding it difficult to find experienced staff, and as a result, they are hiring lower-time pilots and doing more training with them. In order to deal with this hazard, operators have adopted several strategies; you may wish to consider some of these ideas.

  • The pay versus experience balance is one that could be revisited. By increasing salaries to attract and retain more qualified people, you can reduce training costs and possibly insurance premiums. You might also reduce the risk of expensive accidents or incidents.
  • More experienced staff may be a selling feature for your company. Letting your clients know that all your staff have more than a certain number of hours may attract more business.
  • If your company has a wide range of aircraft, you can create a training structure that hires low-time pilots and puts them into action on your smaller aircraft, and then train them to your standards and bring them into more complex aircraft and operations.
  • You could develop briefing packages for your various destinations and routes. Prior to the first trip into any location, the pilot could review the material, and review the route using an on-line satellite imagery program. This would give the pilot the benefit of many people’s prior experience.
  • The company culture must create a healthy learning environment, where new pilots are encouraged to ask questions, are often asked if they feel comfortable, and someone is often available to review their planning. It only takes one person in the company with a surly attitude toward a new pilot to make learning a more difficult experience.

Remember that the number of flying hours is only one measure of experience. You may hire a pilot with many hours of float experience, but that may not be helpful if it is not coastal experience. Likewise, a low-time pilot who has good relevant experience and is sharp may be a better fit than someone with more hours.

Managing fatigue
Many air taxi operators use a self-dispatch style of operational control. This means that the pilots are told where they are flying, and the planning of the flight is left to them. This gives pilots a great deal of autonomy and control over the details of their flight, which might not be the best thing for pilots with little experience. The challenge for the operator is how to maintain operational control under a self-dispatch system.

One challenging issue is that of fatigue. The regulations allow a pilot to be on duty for 14 hours a day, but 14 hours of loading and unloading aircraft, flight planning, flying, and aircraft servicing could well lead to fatigue, particularly if the pilot is still getting used to the job. If the operator is not there to observe the pilot, how can they ensure that the pilot isn’t operating while very fatigued?

Some operators manage fatigue by setting up guidelines that are more conservative than the regulations. They look at the kind of operation, and the level of experience, and establish appropriate flight and duty time restrictions.

Fatigue is not just limited to pilots. Some operators try to educate their staff, including AMEs and pilots, on the signs and symptoms of fatigue, so that all their staff know when to call it a day. This kind of approach can only be effective when the operator sets a tone that allows people to stop when overly fatigued. Transport Canada has developed some fatigue management guidance. You can find it on our Web site at:

The self-dispatch system also puts pilots in direct contact with the client. The client may exert a great deal of pressure on the pilot to carry out the flight, even against the pilot’s better judgement. This pressure can be deflected more readily when pilots are confident that management will back up their decision. Again, this issue is best managed when operators maintain open lines of communication and support the pilots in their decisions.

A critical moment occurs each time a pilot refuses a flight and the client complains to the manager. The manager then approaches the pilot to find out what happened. It is easy for the pilot to feel that his judgement is being questioned, so the manager must begin by expressing support for the pilot. The manager can indicate that he needs to know what happened, only so that he can properly respond to the client. The manager should also end the conversation by again expressing support for the pilot.

Another critical moment occurs when a pilot makes a poor decision due to lack of experience, fatigue, or excessive pressure. In order to maintain a positive safety culture, it is important to handle the situation appropriately. Reprimanding the pilot might feel good, but does it help? Or does the reprimand create a fear of asking questions or confessing an error in the future? The pilot thought he was doing the right thing at the time, so it is important to understand how his decision making went wrong, and provide strategies to prevent a re-occurrence. This requires that you get the full story from the pilot and then work with the pilot to ensure that a similar event will not re-occur, either to him or to anyone else in the company.

None of the above thoughts are especially new, but they are incredibly important in today’s challenging market conditions. Staff turnover can create instability in a company, which leads to a domino effect. Maintaining operational control requires more work, as new staff need closer supervision and guidance. New staff are also more susceptible to client pressure. Providing clear guidance and maintaining open communication becomes critical in these environments.


TC AIM Fast Fact: Airframe Icing

Report icing to ATS and, if operating IFR, request a new routing or altitude if icing will
be a hazard. Give your aircraft identification, type, location, time (UTC), intensity of icing, type, altitude or flight level, and indicated airspeed.  (See the suggested format on the back cover of the Canada Flight Supplement [CFS].)

The following describes icing and how to report icing conditions:


Trace Ice becomes perceptible. The rate of accumulation is slightly greater than the rate of sublimation. It is not hazardous, even though de-icing or anti-icing equipment is not used, unless encountered for an extended period of time (over 1 hour).
Light The rate of accumulation may create a problem if flight is prolonged in this environment (over 1 hour).
Moderate The rate of accumulation is such that even short encounters become potentially hazardous, and use of de-icing or anti-icing equipment or diversion is necessary.
Severe The rate of accumulation is such that de-icing or anti-icing equipment fails to reduce or control the hazard. Immediate diversion is necessary.
* Rime ice Rough, milky, opaque ice formed by the instantaneous freezing of small supercooled water droplets.
* Clear ice Glossy, clear, or translucent ice formed by the relatively slow freezing of large supercooled water droplets.


* Type of icing

Source: Transport Canada Aeronautical Information Manual (TC AIM) MET 2.4




This article was published by Transport Canada in TP 185E -. Reprinted with permission

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