Profits ahead of passenger safety

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is Canada’s largest labour organization with 628,000 members. We also represent over 10,000 flight attendants working for Air Canada, Air Transat, Calm Air, Canadian North, Canjet, Cathay Pacific, First Air and Sunwing.

Transport Canada’s decision to allow Canadian airline carriers to fly with fewer flight attendants is a threat to passenger safety. On May 6, 2013 Transport Canada granted an exemption to WestJet, Sunwing, Air Canada (top carrier and rouge), Air Transat, Canadian North and Canjet to change the current regulation of 1 flight attendant for every 40 passengers. Those carriers can now choose to utilize a new ratio of 1 flight attendant for every 50 passenger seats. Transport Canada is now proposing to change the regulation to allow all Canadian airlines to apply that new ratio.

The federal government claims the change will make Canada’s airlines more competitive with international carriers. We ask, at what cost? Ultimately, Transport Canada’s decision puts profits ahead of passenger safety.

A dangerous reversal in government’s position

The exemptions and proposed regulatory change represent a dangerous reversal in the government’s position. As far back as 2001, the government was in favour of maintaining the 1 in 40 rule. That year, Transport Canada rejected a proposal from the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) in support of changing the 1 in 40 regulation to 1 in 50. Senior management at Transport Canada found that fewer flight attendants would result in an unacceptable safety downgrade and dismissed the proposal in no uncertain terms:

It is “persuasive that further reduction in the number of cabin crew can have a negative affect (sic) on safety and certainly will not enhance safety.”

And again in 2003, a Transport Canada Risk Assessment concluded that the “1 in 50” passenger seats rule did not provide an “equivalent” level of safety to the current “1 in 40” passenger rule.

On May 22, 2014 Transport Canada hosted a six-hour ‘consultation’ meeting on the proposed regulatory change. During this meeting, Transport Canada Safety Inspector Christopher Dann admitted that the safety level provided by the 1 in 50 ratio will never be equivalent to that of the 1 in 40 ratio. Transport Canada also admitted that their newly-proposed regulation had never undergone any risk assessment.

In the past, the House of Commons has insisted that any change to the current flight attendant to passenger ratio (1:40) must have the highest level of scrutiny, debate and oversight. Members of Parliament have repeatedly taken the position that any such change to the flight attendant staffing ratio cannot proceed by way of exemption and, further, that any proposed regulatory change must come before the Standing Committee on Transport – we strongly agree.

Speaking in 2004 at the Standing Committee on Transport, Conservative Member of Parliament Lynne Yelich rightly placed the issue within the context of public safety:

I really view this as a safety issue. I think there are so many things happening nowadays, and it’s all because of 9/11 that we’re trying to get tough safety measures in on the ground, before we board that plane. But it’s in the plane that I think we need to make sure we are well equipped with people who can handle situations that come up in the air, whether it be air rage, situations like the shoe bomber, or people who have severe health problems. There are so many things that come up” (emphases added).

Air France avoids tragedy

In August 2005, Air France Flight 358 ran off the runway at Toronto’s Pearson Airport during a violent thunderstorm and burst into flames. A few months later, then minister of Transport, Lawrence Cannon, decided to maintain the ratio of flight attendants to passengers at 1:40 on large aircraft because “the Conservative government recognized the important contribution that flight attendants make, particularly in emergency evacuations.” 

The flight attendant to passenger ratio on the Air France flight was 1 flight attendant for every 30 passengers, and all the passengers survived. This illustrates the essential role played by highly trained flight attendants, and the need for a sufficient number of safety professionals on board.

Every second counts in an emergency – “1 in 40” is safety proven

CUPE flight attendants are safety professionals. On board, these women and men are firefighters, police officers and nurses. Flight attendants are essential to ensure the safety and security of passengers in an emergency because every second counts. Flight attendants are the first line of defence when things go wrong on an aircraft. Unfortunately, there are many things that can go wrong:

  • Evacuations
  • Cabin decompression
  • Medical emergencies
  • Unruly and/or violent passengers (air rage)
  • Onboard fires
  • Terrorism

With fewer flight attendants, safety will suffer, stress and workloads will increase, and the risk to passengers will increase, especially since the hijackings of September 11, 2001. In the event of an evacuation on larger aircrafts, the 1 to 50 passenger seat ratio means there would be exits not covered by a flight attendant. This could have a serious impact on the safety of passengers during an evacuation, especially travelers with disabilities and older adults who require extra time and assistance in evacuating an aircraft in an emergency. Data from real-life emergency situations show you need more, not fewer, flight attendants.

Transport Canada is embracing the “1 in 50” rule without doing the required research. It says we can deliberately lower safety because this new “1 in 50” ratio is “safe enough”. But Transport Canada does not tell us what it thinks is “safe enough”. It just says because others use it, it must be safe. The reality is that real life accidents and scientific studies show that flight attendant staffing ratios of 1:40 passengers or better do improve passenger chances of escaping in the event of an emergency. The evidence shows that flight attendant staffing levels of 1:40 passengers or better are needed to help save lives in real-life accidents.

The exemptions and the regulatory change have not undergone the necessary level of public scrutiny and are contrary to Transport Canada’s own previous determinations on the “1 in 50” staffing ratio. With such high stakes for airline passengers, the federal government should not act unilaterally.

CUPE’s demands

It is for these reasons that we ask the federal government to reverse the exemptions granted, prevent any and all new exemptions, and halt the introduction of further regulatory change. It is not in the public interest for Transport Canada to be making such decisions when the available evidence shows that the 1 in 50 ratio would lower passenger safety. CUPE is clearly on the record opposing the new ratio. We assert that the change is not in the public interest and will reduce public safety. The Standing Committee on Transport must launch a public inquiry on the matter.