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Transport Canada suspends 'Ice Pilots' carrier; inspections questioned

Last Updated Dec 2, 2015 at 4:00 pm EDT

YELLOWKNIFE – A northern air carrier behind the popular TV show “Ice Pilots” has been grounded over safety concerns.

And a Transportation Safety Board report into the operations of Yellowknife’s Buffalo Airways has raised questions about how Canada ensures all its air carriers are operating safely.

“The current approach to regulatory oversight, which focuses on an operator’s (practices) almost to the exclusion of verifying compliance with the regulations, is at risk of failing to address unsafe practices and conditions,” says the report.

Buffalo Airways was the subject of a reality TV show that ran six seasons on the History Canada channel. Transport Canada pulled the carrier’s operating licence on Tuesday and the airline is prohibited from providing commercial air services.

“Transport Canada took this serious action in the interest of public safety because of Buffalo Airways’ poor safety record,” said a government release.

The suspension comes after an investigation into a crash in 2013. Shortly after takeoff, one of Buffalo’s Second World War era DC-3 airplanes had an engine failure and crashed into trees while the pilot was trying to circle and land.

None of the 21 passengers and three crew was injured.

An investigation by the Transportation Safety Board found a list of shortcomings in the airline’s maintenance of operations.

The engine failed from an undetected cylinder crack. A pump that would have adjusted the dead propeller to keep the plane manoeuvrable didn’t work. Passengers and freight weren’t weighed before takeoff and the plane was significantly overweight.

The TSB’s report pointed out that Transport Canada had conducted “surveillance activities” on Buffalo four times over the previous three years. The carrier had adopted an “adversarial” stance to inspectors, the report noted.

“The company refuted the regulatory basis of findings, questioned the competence of (Transport Canada) investigators and initially did not take responsibility for the issues identified.”

The report raised questions over Transport Canada’s reliance on so-called safety management. Such systems let carriers tailor safety practices to meet their operating requirements, as long as they are within guidelines set out in regulations. Companies are to measure how well their practices work.

Not only were Buffalo’s systems inadequate, Transport Canada’s inspections didn’t catch the problems, said the safety board’s report.

“The focus of all surveillance activities conducted in the three years leading up to the occurrence was on process related to the (safety management system). Transport Canada’s surveillance activities did not identify the operator’s unsafe operating practices.

“Consequently, these practices persisted.”

The report suggested that federal inspectors not only must check that safety practices are in place, but must actively ensure planes meet standards, especially when there’s a recalcitrant operator.

“It (Transport Canada) does not adopt a balanced approach that combines inspections for compliance with audits of safety management processes, unsafe operating practices may not be identified.”

Officials with Transport Canada or Buffalo Airways were not immediately available for comment.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960

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