BRITISH COLUMBIA

'Absolutely' confident: TSB investigator says he'll fly any Canadian airline

03/26/2015 03:27 EDT | Updated 05/26/2015 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - The chief aviation investigator for the federal transport watchdog is reassuring people boarding flights on major Canadian airlines not to worry about the psychological well-being of their pilots.

"I don't have any concerns, I'll fly on any airline in Canada," said Mark Clitsome, director of air investigations with the Transportation Safety Board, following the fatal Germanwings crash in France.

"But we have not had a major airline with this type of incident that I'm aware of, and I've been here 20 years."

Prosecutors in France concluded on Thursday the co-pilot of the commercial airliner deliberately rammed the jet packed with 150 people into the French Alps, killing everyone on board.

Clitsome said in an interview that people shouldn't ruminate over pilot-related safety concerns, because the circumstances of the European tragedy were "very, very, very highly rare."

He said he's "absolutely" confident in current protocols, noting Canada's safety record is excellent and the aviation accident rate is declining, especially when compared around the world.

The federal government moved swiftly on Thursday to shore up its airline policies, directing all Canadian airliners carrying passengers to station two crew members in the cockpit at all times.

Clitsome noted there's always room for improvement, and said the agency maintains an ongoing watch-list of deficiencies, "but none of them touch on what happened in France." That indicates the psychological well-being of pilots has not been a realm of concern, he concluded.

Occasionally, a private plane owner has taken to the sky and then taken their own life — but never endangered anyone else, he said.

Commercial pilots in Canada undergo rigorous training before and after they're hired. Mental health testing varies and tends to occur as part of the employment process, Clitsome said. Either a government inspector or company conducts testing to ensure they're safe to fly.

Airlines must follow the Canadian Aviation Regulations and also take direction from International Civil Aviation Organization.

Transport Canada said in an email that those regulations outline the medical requirements pilots must meet to confirm their physical and mental fitness to fly.

"All commercial pilots are seen by a medical practitioner prior to receiving a medical certificate from Transport Canada," it said, noting examiners assess individual pilots on a regular basis according to the type of licence, age, and health.

"Under strict Transport Canada guidelines, civil aviation medical examiners review every pilot’s medical history to ensure there are no signs of psychosis or suicidal behaviour," it added.

But there's no standardized psychological testing, said John McKenna, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, which represents 80 regional and local airline carriers including Porter Airlines and Sunwing.

"That's a delicate issue. To go into someone's private life is not an easy thing as far as laws are concerned, as far as regulations are concerned," he said.

"And it's very delicate in terms of employee morale. So I don't know how they go around that."

He expressed faith that Canada's policies represent a "safety culture" unparalleled around the world.

"If you see something odd, be it technical or behavioural, you're asked to report it," he said, adding the government mandates adherence to a safety management system.

"It's very thorough and if somebody is behaving oddly, it will be reported."

Bob Connors, general manager at the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre, said that while training schools keep watch over trainees, there's no formal screening process from the start.

"So as people go through training, and we see things that we have concerns about, we'll address them," he said.

Air Canada, said in a statement that it conducts behavioural assessments when it first hires its pilots. They are medically examined every year, and twice annually after age 60.

Paul Howard, communications director for the Air Canada Pilots Association, said it's too early to discuss whether new health-related measures should be considered.

"If that crash had taken place in Canada, we would want to be part of that investigation," he said. "It doesn't do for anyone to be speculating on this stuff."

Yves Demers, chief flight instructor for 20 years at Coastal Pacific Aviation, said most schools provide multi-faceted "human factors" training, but don't target psychological profiles.

"I don't even know how they would do that. Maybe we should do that all the way through government and everything. It's not something that's tangible."

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