Transport Canada slammed for lack of transparency

Victoria city council still waiting for work on harbour airport citizens’ committee

Harbour Air seaplanes taxi in the Inner Harbour. Victoria council is looking for more transparency from the people who oversee the harbour’s airport.

Victoria’s harbour master, Dave Featherby, came before city council to present new federal airport safety standards, and even boast about a safety award.

Instead of praise, he got an earful.

“The issue here is, you say you do a great job, but no one knows,” Mayor Dean Fortin told Featherby and fellow Transport Canada staffer, operations manager Wayne Marston, at Thursday’s governance and priorities meeting. “The absence of that information allows the imagination to run wild.”

For years, the Victoria Harbour airport has been a source of public concern, in part because of its proximity to residential condominiums, but also due to the heavy use of the harbour by several industries and interest groups.

More recently, the approval of a luxury-yacht marina in the harbour has aggravated anxieties about overcrowding.

Reports detailing the number of safety complaints and the outcomes of investigations are not made public by Transport Canada.

In response to the mayor’s comments about a lack of communication, Featherby said, “It’s always been an issue to me as well.”

“When there is an alleged violation in the harbour … and we investigate it and it didn’t happen the way it is portrayed, there is nothing to (bring) back to you or council,” he said. “So it’s left in the mind that this happened.”

The answer frustrated Coun. Pamela Madoff.

“When somebody complains (about a safety infraction), that person needs to be responded to,” she said. “You’re turning into your own worst enemies.”

A previous Transport Canada commitment to open the lines of communication by creating a residents’ committee has not materialized, she added.

Air pollution and noise from the float-plane industry was another point of contention. Council expressed frustration that the new federal regulations are silent on these issues.

“The individual concerns of our harbour have not been acknowledged,” Madoff said, adding the one-size-fits-all approach fits no size.

Under former mayor Alan Lowe, the City of Victoria created a harbour airport task force. In 2010, the city wrote a letter to then transport minister John Baird outlining its conclusions, including quality of life issues.

In response, the city received a letter committing the federal government to further studies.

Marston acknowledged the commitment, but said the funds are lacking.

“Right now, I don’t think the flight numbers justify the expense,” he said.

Flights have been decreasing every year for the past four years. After reaching 43,600 aircraft movements in 2007, there were only 33,700 movements last year.

Coun. Ben Isitt wasn’t appeased by the numbers.

“We’re getting the runaround,” he said. “We need some accountability here.”

He floated the idea of a local airport authority. Madoff is also open to the idea, but warns it would need to be implemented with caution. Like the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, an airport authority would operate as a private society.

“If it’s a private society and there is no oversight at all, where do you go if you don’t get satisfaction from them?” Madoff asked. “It would have to have constitution and bylaws that were very specific and a chain of command (to resolve concerns).”

After the public presentation, the News asked Marston and Featherby for an interview, but was told all inquiries must be addressed through Transport Canada’s media relations. A formal interview request was not met by the News’ deadline.

Safety standards being enhanced

The new federal Safety Management Systems was fully implemented at the Victoria Harbour airport by March 2012. The new procedures focus on aircraft companies.

“Inspectors will also go into a company to watch how it operates, and speak with the workers to measure how well a company’s procedures identify and address safety hazards before they become a serious safety risk,” a general statement about the new strategies states on Transport Canada’s website.

It goes on to state that after decades of improvement, the national accident rate leveled off over the past decade. “The steady improvement in the accident rate was attributable to improvements to technology, such as the introduction of more reliable engines and navigation systems. However, the majority of today’s accidents can be attributed to human or organizational factors … Safety management systems offer the most promising means of preventing these types of accidents.”

rholmen@vicnews.com