In a decision rendered last week, the Federal Court of Appeal has ruled against the Federal Minister of Transport, confirming CUPE’s position that safety is paramount in the operations of airlines in Canada.
“This is a major wake-up call for Transport Canada. The safety of passengers and crew must come first, before any other consideration,” said Mark Hancock, National President of CUPE.
In October 2013, the Minister of Transport granted Sunwing Airlines an exemption from the then 1:40 attendant-passenger ratio, authorizing them to have only one flight attendant for every 50 passengers and to make changes to their flight attendant manual, making certain emergency steps optional, as opposed to mandatory, in order to comply with evacuation rules.
To operate with the exemption, the Minister required that Sunwing demonstrate it was able to complete a partial evacuation simulation within 15 seconds. After failing three attempts, a Transport Canada Inspector suggested Sunwing make the “blocking command” – used to get passengers to assist in crowd control during evacuation procedures (e.g. “You there in the yellow shirt, block the aisle”) – discretionary as a strategy for shaving seconds off. Sunwing conducted a fourth test, omitting the blocking command, and was successful.
The Transport Canada Inspector advised Sunwing it should make an application for approval of a change to its Flight Attendants Manual, making the blocking command non-mandatory and that it should conduct an internal risk assessment. Two days later, Sunwing sent a written request for approval of the changes without attaching a report or detailing the risk assessment that it conducted. Transport Canada immediately approved the changes.
CUPE applied for a judicial review of this decision. CUPE’s position was that these changes should not have received approval since the risk assessment undertaken by Sunwing had not been reviewed by Transport Canada and no reasons were given for the decision to authorize the change.
The Federal Court of Appeal confirmed that the decision of a Transport Canada Inspector to approve the change to Sunwing’s flight attendant manual was unreasonable, as no comprehensive review had taken place. The Court ruled that an Inspector’s decision may be reasonable only if it does not “compromise the safety of passengers or crew.” In this case, not only did the Inspector fail to review Sunwing’s risk assessment, but there was also no evidentiary basis to substantiate the assumption that passengers would not likely block a Sunwing flight attendant needing to open an emergency exit.
This decision gives hope that a separate court challenge, launched by CUPE regarding the 1:50 ratio, will also be successful. In June, a unanimous report from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities recommended “that the federal government revise the 50:1 passenger to flight attendant ratio in consultation with stakeholders and experts on flight attendant ratios, while keeping the security of Canadians as a top priority.”
“We are hopeful that the government will take note of their decision and will follow through with the adoption of the Committee’s report in the House of Commons in order to reinstate the safer 1 to 40 ratio as soon as possible,” concluded Charles Fleury, CUPE’s National Secretary-Treasurer.
Representing more than 11,500 flight attendants employed by nine airlines, CUPE launched the Safer Skies campaign to pressure the Federal government to restore the safer ratio of one flight attendant for every 40 passengers.