Government puts off floatplane safety upgrades in favour of focus groups

VANCOUVER – The federal government is delaying implementing floatplane safety recommendations by the Transportation Safety Board in favour of further consultations that will take months.

A TSB report on a crash off British Columbia’s coast where six people died, including a baby, recommended that pop-out doors be installed and that passengers wear personal-flotation devices.

Four months later, Transport Canada is saying it will hold a focus group with industry members to decide how to address the recommendations, and the results from that will go to an advisory council.

The board’s Jonathan Seymour said Thursday the concern is that such a consultation process can be extremely lengthy and the current safety situation is inadequate.

Seymour said it appears to be a question of government priorities.

“Although we can cite many accidents and many fatalities perhaps – in terms of relativities – there are more important issues to be dealt with.”

The investigation into the Seair Seaplane crash off Saturna Island in November 2009 found that the six who died survived the crash, but couldn’t get out of the submerged plane.

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In the last 20 years, about 70 per cent of the deaths in planes that sank in the water were from drowning after passengers survived the initial impact of the crash.

The TSB has made numerous safety recommendations connected to floatplane safety, but few as pointed as the two most recent recommendations around pop-out doors and life vests.

“We have an absolutely belief that the current situation is inadequate,” Seymour said.

Several TSB reports show that of those who are able to escape from a downed floatplane, few are able to grab their life vest before they leave.

“It’s so much easier if you’re actually wearing one to start with and you get out, you realize you’ve got one on and you inflate it,” Seymour said.

When the report into the crash was released in April, TSB chair Wendy Tadros said it was a crash that undermined the confidence of the floatplane industry.

When the plane slammed into the water, two doors popped open, allowing the pilot and a passenger to escape.

But the crash twisted the fuselage, locking the remaining six passengers inside the sinking plane. Five of the passengers had been able to get out of their seatbelts, but couldn’t escape the plane.

Tadros said there was no guarantee that the proposed rule changes would save lives in every crash, but the overall chances of survival would go up.

After the report was issued, the Float Plane Operators Association, a newly formed industry group, said they wouldn’t wait for new rules from Transport Canada and begin installing pop-out doors and windows for safety reasons.

Seymour said they were happy to see the many players in the B.C. industry take action, but that new rules are needed for all of Canada.

A Transport Canada spokesperson was unavailable to speak about the issue.

The conclusion of the focus group recommendations will be presented to the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council by the spring of 2012.

The Transport Canada reaction to the TSB recommendation said the focus group recommendations would be used “as the basis for amendments to the rules and any proposed rule changes will be consulted expeditiously.”

Seymour said many planes are able to be quickly refitted with pop-out doors, but there’s a wide variety of float planes being used across the country and not all of them can be upgraded.