Editorial – The Sky’s the Limit

For most air travellers, the biggest worries when they hop on a plane are whether they’ll get to their meeting/holiday/connecting flight on time, how much the in-flight snacks cost, and whether or not there will be a crying baby in the next row.

With the rising cost of fuel and industry cutbacks, an extra worry is whether that budget return fare will actually return them anywhere, but on the whole passengers aren’t too worried about safety, blithely confident that the bits of the airplane are bolted together just fine, thank you.

That may all change, though, as Transport Canada’s hands-off approach to inspections comes into effect, a move that, in the words of retired justice Virgil Moshansky, is akin to ?putting the fox in charge of the hen house.?

The concept is called Safety Management Systems (SMS), a short description for a big change that the CBC sums up nicely: ?the federal department will do fewer direct safety audits of air carriers, instead keeping watch over safety checks done by the airlines themselves.?

In May of this year, an Auditor General’s report included a general outline of how responsibilities will shift under the new system.

The traditional approach is that Transport Canada inspectors are ?regulatory compliance auditors.? In other words, they inspect ?aircraft, records, and personnel directly,? making sure that airlines are complying with specific safety regulations.

Using the SMS approach, inspectors will only evaluate whether an airline has a system set up to inspect itself?the same sort of deregulation that isn’t exactly inspiring confidence in our food inspection system.

So should airline passengers be concerned? Yes, in part because of the rationale behind the move.

It’s part of a directive from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), of which Canada is a member. As the CBC reports, the ICAO’s position is that ?the rapidly expanding aviation industry and the limited resources of oversight authorities make it increasingly difficult to sustain the existing approach to managing safety.?

The answer, then, is to have airline companies take over much of the responsibility of managing their own safety inspections, a solution that member countries are expected to have in place by 2009.

But that expectation comes at a time when airlines are already feeling the squeeze. Fuel prices keep rising, large carriers are cutting staff, and smaller airlines are shutting down, in some cases so suddenly they’re leaving passengers stranded. In short, an industry That’s already under pressure must now carry the keys to both vaults: one marked ?profits,? the other ?regulation.?

It’s a situation that critics charge is a disaster in the making, and only time will tell if they’re right. But as airlines continue to cut back in order to stay competitive, let’s hope passengers aren’t in for more than a bumpy ride.

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