Secrecy in the skies- new Bill limits access to information

By Don Butler
Ottawa Citizen
Jan 19, 2008

A "curtain of secrecy" is poised to descend over safety problems within Canadian airlines, say critics alarmed by legislation currently before the House of Commons.

The legislation, Bill C-7, could receive third reading as early as next month. Among other things, it authorizes airlines to adopt a form of industry self-regulation known as safety management systems, or SMS, to police their operations.

Bill C-7 provides that information about safety-related incidents -- including material from flight data recorders and self-reported violations -- voluntarily provided by airlines or their employees will remain confidential.

It also designates such safety reports as "mandatory exclusions" under the Access to Information Act, putting them beyond the reach of access requests.

That means they can never be released, making them even more secret than cabinet confidences, which receive absolute protection for 20 years. Nor can they be reviewed by the information commissioner.

"The net effect will be to throw a curtain of secrecy over safety information, shutting down public scrutiny in Parliament and in media," say briefing notes prepared by David Gollob, senior vice-president of policy and communications for the Canadian Newspaper Association.

The secrecy provisions have prompted the CNA and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 8,500 flight attendants, to call on the Senate to intervene.

"We are extraordinarily concerned about it," said Anne Kothawala, the CNA's president and CEO. "This is unbelievable in terms of the level of secrecy.

"Essentially the public and the media are being asked to take both the airlines and Transport Canada's word that any safety violations have been dealt with."

Ms. Kothawala said members of the public rely on media reporting to ensure that airline safety standards are being upheld. But if Bill C-7 passes, she said, "the only time we're going to hear about it is when it's too late, when it's a really serious accident."

Kirsten Goodnough, a Transport Canada spokeswoman, said the expanded secrecy provisions apply to airline employees who voluntarily report safety concerns to their employer -- information Transport Canada would not normally see.

The result, he said, is "the public will now never know the state of safety in the airlines."

Mr. Gollob said he's been told Transport Canada fears passenger confidence in airlines could be undermined if the safety reports are made public.

Mr. Balnis said the proposed changes are consistent with the "cult of secrecy" that prevails at Transport Canada.

The information commissioner has gone to court several times to force disclosure of safety reports Transport Canada argued should remain confidential.

A spokeswoman for Information Commissioner Robert Marleau said he "doesn't feel its appropriate to comment" on the issue while the bill is progressing through Parliament. However, she added, Mr. Marleau will make his position known to the Senate if it addresses the issue.

Bill C-7's critics say the secrecy provisions are especially troubling given Transport's Canada's steady withdrawal from from day-to-day on-site inspections and safety audits since it began phasing in the SMS approach in 2005 under ministerial authority.

"If there was ever a time for greater transparency, it seems to me that it would be under that kind of arrangement," Ms. Kothawala said.

Transport Canada has argued that SMS enhances safety by adding another layer to departmental oversight.

But critics are unconvinced. They point to the rise in rail derailments since railway companies were given the authority to implement a version of SMS in 1999. Last year there were more major rail accidents in Canada than in the previous six years combined.

"There are fears that moving to this kind of safety management system in the airline industry will lead to the sort of increase in accidents that we've seen in the rail industry," said Mr. Gollob.

CUPE and two unions representing airline inspectors have said the shift to SMS is being driven by budget cuts and an impending retirement crunch among inspectors.

But Transport Canada denies that, maintaining that its sole motivation is to improve airline safety.

CUPE says Transport Canada is effectively giving up its safety oversight role and dismantling the system of checks and balances that has produced the current low airline accident rate. Flight attendants are starting to realize that SMS means "Selling-out My Safety," the union says.

Some of CUPE's concerns about SMS were addressed last spring during committee study of the bill. MPs on the committee adopted roughly half of more than 30 amendments the union proposed. But the secrecy provisions survived after an NDP amendment was defeated.

"We got half a loaf," said Mr. Balnis. "We improved from white bread to brown. Now we're going to take it to multi-grain."

Because Transport Canada is already rolling out the SMS approach with airlines, Mr. Balnis said it probably can't be stopped.

Instead, "we're trying to mitigate the damage, because quite frankly, they're doing it regardless of what Parliament says."

The rationale for keeping those reports secret is to "encourage employees to report and to create a culture of safety within organizations," Ms. Goodnough said.

Similarly, the move to keep routine information from flight data recorders secret is meant to encourage airlines to voluntarily implement flight data monitoring programs, she said.

"This is part of the safety culture within safety management systems. So this is adding an additional layer to regulations and safety procedures that already exist."

Ms. Goodnough said Transport Canada "will continue to have full disclosure of any information that directly affects the safety of Canadians," including Transport Canada air safety audits and corrective action reports.

But Richard Balnis, a senior researcher at CUPE, said departmental officials have publicly said they intend to invoke confidentiality protections in the Access to Information Act to seal off air safety audits from public scrutiny.

While Transport Canada will continue to inspect airlines, Mr. Balnis said it will focus on assessments of safety management systems, not airplanes.

"As long as your system is functioning and collecting the data and you appear to be processing it, that's all the inspector will do," he said.

Ms. Kothawala wants to Senate to hold public hearings on the bill. "If ever there was a role for the Senate being that sober second thought, they can really wade in on this," she said.

Mr. Balnis agreed that the Senate must address the concerns about Bill C-7's secrecy provisions.

"We will not know if SMS is working, and we will not know if they're managing the risk," he said. "Everything will be hidden and we'll only know when the crash happens. And that's too late, in our view."