Fixing aviation ecosystem means looking beyond the headlines

  • National Newswatch

Every day some 350000 people embark on a plane for one of the more than 15,000 flights that take off and land at Canadian airports.To put it context, that's the equivalent of the population of the City of Toronto – every woman, man and child -- boarding a plane in Canada, every week.For the vast majority of those travelers, the flight is as it should be: pleasant and uneventful.And for every one of them, that pleasant and uneventful flight involved the coordinated efforts of thousands of people in air traffic control, in airlines, in airports and in security - most of them working behind the scenes.A generation or two ago, it was the pace of progress in passenger air travel and the economic, social and political vistas it opened that fueled news stories.But our industry and the complex ecosystem it operates in have become victims of their own success: When pleasant and uneventful are the norm, it's the rare hiccups that create headlines.When those headlines play out absent any context, it's not surprising that some may come to believe the exception to be the rule.What is surprising, however, is to see those headlines become the justification for federal policies and legislative proposals.We saw that scenario play out last year with the introduction of Bill C-49, the government's omnibus transportation bill and its so-called passenger rights provisions  and again last week as the House debated Senate amendments to the Bill.What was particularly troubling was to see the Senate double down on one of the Bill's canards --namely that it is possible to reduce tarmac delays by government diktat -- and in so doing actually make things worse for travelers.The Senate amendment -- supported in the House by both Conservative and NDP Members – would reduce the time before an airline had to return to gate and allow passengers to disembark from three hours to 90-minutes.Now, no one wants a plane to idle on the tarmac unnecessarily for any length of time -  not air passengers, not pilots and other flight crew, and certainly not air carriers.So, where's the problem?First, tarmac delays usually result from direct and indirect safety-related circumstances beyond the control of any one air carrier.Two, the proposed amendment fails to acknowledge the complex choreography involving thousands of people and multiple agencies and organizations that goes into every flight and every passenger movement.Each has a role to play in that flight pushing back and getting airborne on time. And each carries its part of responsibility.Delays caused by bottlenecks anywhere in the aviation ecosystem can ripple across an ocean and affect flights and travelers a continent away.These bottlenecks can be caused by any number of factors: weather, air traffic control or security and border screening throughput capacity; mechanical or IT breakdowns --even government regulations, of which there are hundreds.Three, by reducing the window available to air carriers, airports and air traffic control to deal with the causes of the original delay, the Senate amendments add a further complication to an already complex and finely balanced system.The US experience in this area is instructive.Since 2010 US carriers have been mandated to return to the gate in the event of a tarmac delay of three hours for domestic flights and four hours for international flights.Yet, even with that longer window, a recent US Department of Transport study found that while the rule had reduced the number of tarmac delays, it had caused a spike in flight cancellations and resulted in a net time-in-transit increase for passengers.There is no reason to think that the experience will be different in Canada. If anything, our more extreme weather is likely to make matters worse.Although meant to improve the passenger experience, the unintended consequence of a mandatory 90-minute return to the gate will be an increase in the number of flight cancellations as well as disruptions to flight schedules system-wide.Fixing the aviation ecosystem, with its multiple and finely balanced moving parts, will require the precision of a watchmaker, but it must start with a willingness to look beyond the headline.Massimo Bergamini is President and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC)