Canadian Airline Workers Eager to See Whistle-Blowers Protected

Public safety on airlines is often compromised by intense pressure to keep planes in the air and on time, airline workers from across the industry are telling The Hamilton Spectator.

But they say they can't come forward to share those concerns with Canadians.

On Monday, Air Canada Jazz suspended four mechanics for speaking out publicly about being pressured to cut corners and release planes into service with potentially serious defects. Their comments were part of an ongoing series of stories probing aviation safety by The Hamilton Spectator, Toronto Star and The Record of Waterloo Region.

Air Canada Jazz officials dismiss allegations, saying safety is their top priority.

Since the suspensions, more than two dozen mechanics, pilots, flight attendants and air traffic controllers have contacted the Star with safety concerns, saying the industry's code of silence is too powerful to break.

Without sufficient whistleblower legislation, a protection that has helped airline employees in the U.S. come forward with important safety revelations, speaking out in Canada can come at the cost of jobs and livelihoods, they say.

"I applaud these (Jazz mechanics) for having the courage to come out with it. It has been long hidden and I can understand why it is difficult to come forward," said a veteran Air Canada mechanic.

"You go to work, you want to feed your family ... and you don't want to have blood on your hands because the airline wants to make a few more bucks. For them to be punished for having a concern for the public's safety is wrong. ... Corners are being cut and all of us would like to sing like canaries about what is happening, but (we) keep it mostly amongst ourselves."

The claims by the Jazz mechanics include the following:

* They say avoiding costly delays can take priority over proper maintenance of planes.

* They say their attempts to keep planes on the ground by refusing to release them for service have been undermined by supervisors who find other mechanics to sign them out, or do it themselves.

* They say the scrutiny and training in the airline's mechanical operation is poor.

In an internal e-mail sent to staff Tuesday, Air Canada officials wrote: "The allegations reported in the (Spectator) article are unfounded, unsubstantiated, misleading, and in no way reflect the integrity of the Jazz Maintenance Department. Jazz has an excellent safety record which we are proud to stand behind. We have a staff of dedicated and professional aircraft maintenance engineers that ensure that our fleet is safe to operate."

Jazz officials say the mechanics were suspended pending an investigation into their claims and their decision to speak publicly.

It's no surprise, says Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based non-profit advocacy group that focuses on government accountability and corporate responsibility.

"These (mechanics) are very brave to do this. Given the state of corporate responsibility in Canada, it's not unusual that the corporation would act this way because they can."

Canada is decades behind the U.S. when it comes to protecting employees who go public with important information, says Conacher.

"(Strong whistle-blower protection) is one of the most effective government accountability and corporate responsibility enforcement measures because it turns every employee into a front-line inspector on the job all the time."

Canada currently offers little protection for employees who speak out about wrongdoing or threats to public safety. Bill C-2, under debate in Parliament, promises protections for government employees who expose wrongdoing. If the bill becomes law, provisions would include an independent office that would receive and investigate whistle-blower complaints and penalties for those who discriminate against whistle-blowers for stepping forward.

But it will not cover employees of private companies such as airlines. A proposed NDP amendment to expand protection to some private industry employees was defeated Tuesday.

"(The Jazz case) is one of the most graphic illustrations in recent history of why protection of whistle-blowers is important and necessary," said NDP MP Pat Martin.

"It's atrocious that some courageous whistle-blowers come forward in the public interest and get punished. It's just so fundamentally wrong."

The story is different in the U.S. where federal and state laws foster open reporting and protection from retaliation for both government and private employees who come forward with information of importance to the public.

Most U.S. states have some form of whistle-blower protection and there are several federal laws specific to industries such as aviation, trucking, energy and mining.

The so-called Air21 legislation directed at the airline industry prohibits employers from retaliating against employees involved in "raising concerns or reporting violations of airline safety rules and regulations."

Airline workers who are suspended, harassed, demoted, blacklisted or disciplined as a result of speaking out can be rewarded with everything from job reinstatement to costs associated with filing their complaint.

"The laws give us the ability to right a wrong," says O.V. Delle-Femine, national director of Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association in the U.S.

"It's common throughout the industry that anyone who talks out is ostracized by management. But we've had significant successes."

Canadian airline mechanics say they'd be more than happy to share what they know if they had U.S.-style legal protections.

Many say they dearly wish they could speak out about important concerns Canadians have never heard but deserve to know.

For the past seven months reporters from The Hamilton Spectator, Toronto Star and The Record of Waterloo Region have been asking questions about air safety. What they found is a flight safety system straining at the seams.

How safe are our skies?

For the past seven months reporters from The Hamilton Spectator, Toronto Star and The Record of Waterloo Region have been asking questions about air safety. What they found is a flight safety system straining at the seams.

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