By Kenneth Jackson and Cullen Crozier
First Nation-owned Wasaya Airways is under the watch of Transport Canada inspectors after the company was found to be violating “major” components of their safety management system (SMS) during an inspection in 2013, APTN Investigates has learned.
But an aviation expert says the northern Ontario company should have been immediately grounded and described their safety management system as in “shambles” based on a Transport Canada inspection report obtained by APTN.
A team of Transport Canada inspectors descended on the Wasaya headquarters in Thunder Bay last March and spent about a week poring over the company’s SMS dating back a year to April 2012 according to the report.
It was determined the airway, that serves remote First Nations in northern Ontario, to be in “non-conformance” in six different key elements relating to SMS, a regulatory requirement airways in Canada adhere to.
Inspectors found staff didn’t know how to file safety reports, the main base in Thunder Bay had no carry-on sizing device, neither did sub-base Sioux Lookout, an emergency response plan hadn’t been updated since 2010 and none of the staff interviewed by Transport Canada were trained on it.
An armed peace officer was also allowed to fly without documentation and without crew members knowing he was carrying a live weapon. There was also multiple issues with de-icing policies.
To see the complete report click here.
“There were indications employees had started to lose respect for the process and to question their supervisor’s commitment or their ability to bring about change. There were several gaps in functionally related elements which will cause the system to continue to break down,” the report said referring to how the SMS was implemented.
Management then got a failing grade from Transport Canada or a “major” deficiency.
“Staff did not understand what they were responsible for, people (were) not completing their duties and staff (was) not being held responsible for items under their control,” the report states.
Dave Winter used to conduct aviation inspections for Transport Canada until he retired in 2010. APTN asked him to review the assessment of Wasaya and give his expert opinion.
He described Wasaya as being in complete shambles regarding their safety reporting.
“I would have suspended their operating certificate,” said Winter, who had planes grounded during his more than 30 years with Transport Canada. “To me that means there is something seriously wrong with the company. It’s up to Transport Canada to do something about that.”
Transport Canada didn’t take Wasaya out of the air.
Rather Wasaya was ordered to make adjustments and submit a report saying the changes had been made – known as a Corrective Action Plan.
According to the report the plan was to be filed by June 17, 2013. It was filed in July.
Transport Canada refused to provide a copy of Wasaya’s plan or speak about the company citing privacy reasons.
Winter said if Transport Canada wasn’t going to ground the planes then the feds should have followed up with surprise inspections and went undercover on flights to ensure safety of passengers was being met.
“I’d be putting those guys under pretty much constant surveillance,” said Winter. “I’d be watching them every day.”
Transport Canada did say they have visited Wasaya twice since March 2013, but it’s not clear if one of those times was the initial inspection. They also said they’ll continue to monitor Wasaya but wouldn’t say how.
They also said they conducted 11 inspections between 2001 and February 2013. Transport Canada didn’t respond in a timely fashion to a follow up question on how previous inspections missed what they determined to be major deficiencies in safety.
Wasaya eventually refused to comment on “internal matters” and said it’s a private company accountable to the First Nations that own the airway.
President Tom Morris initially offered to pay for an APTN reporter to fly to Thunder Bay and meet his staff. He would also pay for accommodations. He then offered to fly to Ottawa and meet with APTN before sending a letter declining any comment.
Airways in Canada basically regulate themselves after Transport Canada begin implementing the SMS requirement in 2005. It’s one of the reasons why Winters retired. He didn’t think SMS went far enough to protect passengers and said he witnessed enforcement be scaled back.
The systems allow for a company to establish, maintain and adhere to their own SMS.
Federal inspectors then review the overall system.
The expectation is the company will conduct internal audits and verify employees understand SMS to ensure it’s working.
Transport Canada said they are satisfied with the changes Wasaya has made but their own report suggests management doesn’t always follow up on “Corrective Action Plans.”
Winter said from his experience when airways are found not following safety rules they make it look like things will change but follow ups showed many times they didn’t.
“When they get caught doing something like that they’ll put on the appearance that they’re doing something, but once the surveillance is done they go back to their old ways,” he said.
That’s why he said it’s important Transport Canada continue to monitor Wasaya, at least to ensure the protection of passengers is being done.
Wasaya is owned by 12 northern Ontario First Nations. Multiple chiefs said they had no knowledge of the Transport Canada report and asked that it be faxed to them.
In 2003, eight people died when a Wasaya plane crashed heading to Summer Beaver First Nation.