"The air taxi sector of the aviation industry has seen 175 deaths over the last 10 years — 65 per cent of all commercial aviation fatalities — and we need to determine why," Kathy Fox, the safety board's chairwoman, said in a release Wednesday.
Federal regulations describe air taxis as small single- and multi-engine aircraft other than turbojets that carry nine or fewer passengers. There are about 600 such companies in Canada that generally fly people to remote or smaller communities.
Fox said that over the last 10 years, the safety board has repeatedly drawn attention to critical safety issues that have contributed to accidents.
The board says concerns include inadequate risk analysis of operations, crew operating procedures and pilot decision-making.
Fox said the investigation, to begin early next year, is to include a review of accidents involving air taxis.
The board plans to release its findings to the public, including possible recommendations to Transport Canada to deal with any systemic problems.
The air taxi industry is not subject to the same federal safety management system (SMS) rules as larger airlines such as Air Canada or WestJet.
Transport Canada has been working on regulations for the air taxi industry, but it is not clear when they will be complete or go into effect.
In the meantime, the Transportation Safety Board has been encouraging air taxi operators to bolster safety training.
In 2011, Fox gave a presentation to the Air Transport Association of Canada in which she acknowledged some of the challenges faced by operators: air taxi companies offering "on-demand" service, weather, flying over difficult terrain and operating from smaller airfields.
She noted that crews face high workloads, often have less training and experience and fly smaller, older aircraft with less sophisticated avionics systems.
The presentation recommended bolstering pilot training and establishing an ongoing safety culture to identify potential hazards. It also recommended strong regulatory oversight.
John McKenna, CEO of the Air Transport Association of Canada, said the industry would welcome federal safety management system rules, but they must be tailor-made for small companies.
He said the association will fully co-operate with the review.
"If we can do anything as an association that will help improve safety in aviation, we will be there."
Transport Canada said the department will work with the safety board on the review and welcomes any future recommendations that may be made to improve safety.
Roxane Marchand, a department spokeswoman, said since 2005 large airlines that carry the vast majority of passengers have been required to have a safety management system in place.
She said the department continues to work on regulations for smaller carriers.
"Transport Canada is refining procedures, training and guidance material, based on feedback from inspectors and industry stakeholders, before extending safety management system requirements to small operations, including air taxis," she wrote in an email.
Marchand said air taxi operates are required to meet strict safety requirements outlined in the Aeronautics Act and the Canadian Aviation Regulations.
She said Transport Canada regularly conducts inspections and audits to verify compliance.
Mark Clitsome, director of air investigations for the TSB, said the review is to include consultations with other groups that could include the Helicopter Association of Canada, the Canadian Airports Council, individual airlines and aircraft manufacturers.
Transport Canada has given the TSB no indication when it will announce regulations for the air taxi industry, he said.
The federal government conducted a similar safety review about 20 years ago, but technology and operating procedures for small air carriers have changed, Clitsome added. He said there are problems and it's time for an update.
"Things have changed. SMS (safety management system regulations) is not happening in the smaller operators," he said.
"We need to take a look at how they are operating with all these risks and how they pay attention to critical safety issues."
— By John Cotter in Edmonton