TSB featured article

This article was published in Hill Times, August 2011

Government needs to show leadership on floatplane safety

By Jonathan Seymour, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

It's summer, and more and more Canadians are seeking holiday adventures off the beaten path. Forget about road trips, these intrepid adventurers are boarding commercial floatplanes in Quebec, British Columbia, and a hundred places in between—venturing into the remotest parts of the country to experience the beauty of Canada's wilderness.

But you don't have to be in the middle of nowhere to find trouble.

On a blustery November afternoon in 2009, a floatplane took off from Lyall Harbour on Saturna Island, in British Columbia's southern Gulf Islands. Moments later, the plane lost lift and crashed into the chilly waters below. All eight occupants survived the initial impact, but six—including a mother clutching her infant daughter—drowned because they never got out.

When the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) released its investigation report into the crash earlier this year, we made two recommendations: First, that all new and existing commercial floatplanes be fitted with regular and emergency exits that allow rapid escape following a crash. Second, occupants must be required to wear a device that provides personal flotation once they're in the water.

Beaver Seaplane - Recovery
Beaver Seaplane - Recovery

These mirror the two most common risks we find time and again in our investigations, namely:

  • If you don't get out, you will drown.
  • Even if you do get out, without personal flotation, you might still drown.

Harsh truths? You bet, and they're backed up by even harsher statistics: In floatplane accidents, 70% of fatalities are from drowning. 50% of occupants don't escape. Of those who do, less than 10% take their personal floatation devices (PFDs) with them.

That's why the TSB made its first recommendation on the wearing of PFDs back in 1994. And, even though we've spent many years drawing attention to the need for ease of egress from a downed floatplane, only recently have we started to make headway: The two associations representing most of the commercial floatplane operators in B.C. have recently endorsed our recommendations, and one manufacturer now supplies doors with improved handles and pop-out windows.

That fix, however, covers less than 10% of the country's registered floatplanes. What about elsewhere—the gang of fishing buddies on a weekend excursion to Labrador, or the family of four on summer holiday in northern Ontario? They face the same risks, and they deserve the same protection.

It seems obvious that what's needed is a nationwide solution, yet this is also where the problem lies—because whenever it comes to discussing mandatory measures, industry raises several objections. The first concern, that a PFD might be accidentally inflated prior to exit, seems unfounded, and difficult to prove when the vast majority of passengers—more than 90%—either don't wear one or else leave it behind during egress. Moreover, a 20-year search of the TSB database failed to reveal even a single verifiable incidence where PFDs hampered passenger movements or prevented an occupant's escape.

The second complaint—bulky life vests that were once uncomfortable or didn't fit well over business clothing and heavy coats—has been resolved by advances in technology. In the marine industry, for example, "horseshoe collars" with manually triggered compressed-air inflation are now common. Alternatively, some manufacturers offer a "fanny pack" that is worn around the waist and can be inflated as needed.

The solution—or at least the starting point—is well-known. Following the Lyall Harbour crash, both of the TSB's recommendations were formally presented to Transport Canada. However, despite significant work raising public and industry awareness, TC's official response fails to commit to a clear strategy that will fix these problems. According to the Minister of Transport, an industry focus group is scheduled to meet in August 2011. Whatever conclusions it reaches will be presented to the Canadian Aviation Advisory Council in the spring of 2012, which will then be the basis for any future amendments to the existing rules.

That's progress? A consultative process leading to a consultative process which will then be the basis for lawmakers to do more consulting?

Let's get realistic. Even if all that talk leads to some agreement on what needs to be done, there have been plenty of instances where TSB recommendations have been accepted "in principle," only for meaningful action to languish for fifteen years and longer. That's not because lawmakers can't tell what's safe and what's not, but because opposing interests often have a financial stake in delaying or watering down any new regulations.

Well, now is the time to show leadership. It's time to move the stumbling blocks out of the way and expedite progress. We know these safety issues exist. We've been studying them for years and, if we needed yet another reminder, there was no harsher lesson than the Lyall Harbour accident. Today we have a perfect opportunity to improve floatplane safety for all Canadians. Let's not waste it.