CUPE uses court ruling to push feds to tighten airline passenger safety rules

OTTAWA — A recent court decision should come as a warning to the federal government to stop playing fast and loose with airline passenger safety rules, says the head of a union that represents thousands of flight attendants in Canada.

In the wake of the ruling last week by the Federal Court of Appeal, the Canadian Union of Public Employees is urging the Liberal government to change federal rules about the ratio of crew to passengers on planes.

The court disagreed with Transport Canada’s conclusion that there was no impact on passenger or crew safety when it allowed Sunwing Airlines to increase the ratio of passengers to flight attendants on its aircraft.

Under federal rules at the time, flights originating in Canada were required to have one attendant for every 40 passengers, unless the transport minister granted an exemption.

In 2013, Sunwing asked to raise the ratio to 1-50 on its Boeing 737-800 aircraft — each of which can seat 189 passengers, according to seating charts on the company’s website. That ratio became the threshold for all carriers in Canada in June 2015.

Sunwing also sought permission to change procedures for flight attendants during an emergency evacuation.

However, the airline failed three separate tests of the new system, in which crews were required to perform a partial evacuation in just 15 seconds. A Transport Canada inspector was on hand for those tests.

The inspector suggested the crew could save time by foregoing “blocking” orders, which calls for a passenger to block the aisle to allow a crew member to open an emergency exit. The advice worked; the crew passed the test.

However, before the government could sign off on the change, Sunwing was told to provide a risk assessment showing that dropping the blocking order from its procedures wouldn’t compromise safety.

The resulting risk assessment said that it would be unlikely that passengers would block emergency exits during an evacuation.

CUPE took the government to court over the decision to increase the ratio on Sunwing flights. The union represents more than 11,500 flight attendants at nine airlines.

The Aug. 4 ruling said the risk assessment was “cursory and provides no indication of how this conclusion was reached.” The judge also felt that testimony at trial showed that “no reliable testing was conducted to verify the accuracy of the conclusions.”

The inspector didn’t review the assessment before giving his seal of approval, the judge added.

The Supreme Court’s test for government decisions requires that they be transparent, intelligible and justifiable; this decision met none of those benchmarks, the judge continued, saying there was no way to determine how the inspector reached such conclusions.

“Not only did the inspector fail to review Sunwing’s risk assessment, there is in addition no evidentiary basis to substantiate the assumption that passengers would not likely block a Sunwing flight attendant who needs to open an emergency exit to evacuate the aircraft,” the ruling said.

“It is impossible to see how the inspector could have been satisfied that the proposed amendment … did not compromise safety.”

The government was also ordered to cover the union’s legal costs of $3,000.

“This is a major wake-up call for Transport Canada,” CUPE national president Mark Hancock said in a statement. “The safety of passengers and crew must come first, before any other consideration.”

A Transport Canada spokeswoman said officials are reviewing the ruling.

A June report from the House of Commons transport committee recommended the government review the 1-50 ratio with an eye to safety and security.

The union wants the Liberal government to require all airlines to use the lower ratio of passengers to crew to promote safety.

Transport Canada spokeswoman Sofie McCoy-Astell said the 1-50 ratio has been safely used in the United States and Europe for years and gives airlines greater flexibility to use the ratio best adapted to their unique operations. She said companies can and do still use a lower threshold.

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