Critics say leasing foreign aircraft 'a question of standards'
Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife and Field Producer Philip Ling, CTV News
Published Wednesday, February 27, 2013 10:49PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 27, 2013 11:37PM EST
OTTAWA -- March Break travellers flying on a Canadian airline to a holiday resort may not realize their plane and its pilots could be leased from another country, a business practice some critics say is “concerning.”
“Wet leasing” allows Canadian companies to lease not just a foreign aircraft but also its crew, maintenance and other essential elements.
“As a passenger, I would assume if I’m buying a Canadian ticket, I would expect I’d be flying on a Canadian airplane, operated by Canadian crew,” said Canadian Federal Pilots Association president Daniel Slunder. “But in some instances that may not be.”
A CTV News investigation revealed Tuesday that two Canadian CF-18 Hornet fighter jets scrambled to intercept a Sunwing Airlines flight near Quebec City last July, after the Toronto-bound aircraft lost contact with air traffic control for more than an hour.
The incident was pilot error, caused when the pilot didn’t complete a required change in the plane’s radio frequency when it flew from one region of airspace to another.
The aircraft used for the Sunwing Airlines Flight 221 was owned by Portugal’s EuroAtlantic Airways and flown by Portuguese pilots. The Boeing 767-300 was on a wet lease to Toronto-based Sunwing Airlines.
Sunwing said wet leasing was not a factor in the potential air threat.
While wet leasing may not pose a safety threat, critics like Slunder say “it’s a question of standards.”
Passengers simply don’t know whether a Canadian crew is operating the aircraft when they get on a plane for a Canadian airline’s flight, he said.
“That would concern me because as a Canadian,” Slunder said. “In Canada, if I see a decal on an airplane that I recognize is a Canadian airline, I would expect it to be maintained to the same standards, operated by the same standards, with people with the same standards as Canadian pilots.”
He added that Canada have a standard that may be higher than what International Civil Aviation Organization requires of other countries.
“So there are differences in standards, and that’s the issue here,” Slunder said. “Canadian pilots are saying other pilots are not meeting our standards in Canada as such.”
Sunwing Airlines insists the planes from which they wet lease meet all Western European standards.
“To suggest there’s a safety issue using Western European pilots flying in and out of Canada is ludicrous,” said president Mark Williams.
“Canadian pilots are very well trained, they’re trained to a very high standard. Western European pilots are also trained to a very high standard,” he said. “It’d be absurd to suggest that you are more or less safe flying on an aircraft regulated by the Western European regulator than you are from Transport Canada.”
Williams added he doesn’t “see the concern” if a Canuck doesn’t operate a Canadian flight.
“It’s a common practice for carriers to do code shares and wet leases … so it’s very common practice for consumer to have a ticket that’s booked on one carrier and be operated by another carrier,” he insists.
Wet lease approvals a ‘free-for-all’
Air Lines Pilots Association International, which represents Air Transat pilots, said it is currently a “free-for-all” as to which Canadian companies can be granted wet leases.
Traditionally, he said, wet leases were only used on a temporary basis -- for example, when a company's own planes are temporarily grounded for repairs.
“The fact of the matter is Transport Canada doesn’t have a wet lease policy so it’s pretty much open ended,” association president Dan Adamus said.
“There should be some limits on how long they can wet lease and for the reasons that they’re wet leasing. We don’t want an airline to have wet leasing as part of their business policy or business practice. That’s just not on.”
Two companies have active foreign wet leases with non-Canadian companies: Sunwing Airlines currently lease four airplanes on wet lease from Travel Service of the Czech Republic; WestJet leases two U.K. Thomas Cook aircraft. (Sunwing no longer leases from Portugal's EuroAtlantic; that agreement ended September 2012).
Since 2007, 43 domestic and foreign wet lease applications have been approved.
Transport Canada and the Canadian Transport Agency say they have been reviewing the country’s approach to wet leasing since last November, after Air Canada raised concerns around commercial and control, and the oversight of safety, security, maintenance and engineering of foreign-owned aircraft. WestJet Airlines and Air Transat also protested.
The government is currently consulting industry to determine whether or not airlines should be required to justify why they need foreign planes and foreign pilots, which so far hasn’t been taken into account.
The CTA admits that “it would be both timely and beneficial to clarify the agency’s approach to wet lease applications.”
It's not known how long the review will take.