Canadian air operators still trying to navigate FRMS process ahead of new flight & duty time regulations

Avatar for Lisa GordonBy Lisa Gordon | November 16, 2022

Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 19 seconds.

A big deadline is looming for air operators falling under subparts 703 (air taxi) and 704 (commuter) of the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs).

Effective Dec. 12, 2022, they will be required to adhere to Transport Canada’s new rules for tracking and managing flight crew fatigue. They’ll have two choices on that date: either follow the prescriptive regulations as written in the CARs, or submit an alternate plan for approval, describing how they will implement their own fatigue risk management system (FRMS).

An FRMS has four components: the plan, the process, the promotion program, and a quality assurance program. Ultimately, it proves that a proposed variance from the regulations will not increase the level of flight crew fatigue or decrease their alertness.

CARS Part 703 (air taxi) and 704 (commuter) operators must comply with Transport Canada’s new flight and duty time regulations by Dec. 12, 2022. Cessna/Textron Photo

The new flight and duty time regulations, announced in December 2018, replace the previous rules dating back to 1996. From the beginning, Canadian air operators have protested that a “one size fits all” regulatory regime will not work for the country’s varied aviation operations. Transport Canada has responded that the FRMS system answers the unique needs of these operators by giving them the opportunity to design their own customized fatigue management plan.

While it is currently unclear how many 703 and 704 operators will be submitting a Notice of Intent (NOI) along with a proposed FRMS, the approval process for these documents also remains somewhat murky.

Transport Canada has released three advisory circulars describing how operators will be required to comply with the regulations, but operators still have questions about the FRMS process and how proposed plans will be evaluated, approved, and enforced.

The regulator has said an operator’s first point of contact is their principal operations inspector (POI). However, in some cases the POI has had to refer questions up the chain to the regulator’s subject matter experts (SMEs).

According to Sau Sau Liu, senior communications advisor at Transport Canada, these SMEs have been working on the development of the new flight crew fatigue management program since 2010.

“SMEs are available to ensure standardization across the country and have created tools and guidance material to assist the regions in their oversight activity,” she wrote in an Oct. 27 email to Skies.

She also confirmed that the regulator has not hired additional staff to help launch the new regulations.

Lack of Direction

“We submitted an NOI on July 12 to our POI here, and they sent it on to an SME, and we are still waiting for a response,” said Mark Wiskemann, president and operations manager at Thunder Bay, Ontario-based Wisk Air. “Our FRMS manual is in their possession and we are waiting for feedback on the manual and proposals. They acknowledged receipt on July 25, but so far we’ve had no directive as to what we are expected to do.”

Wiskemann said that while Wisk Air is aware that it must gather fatigue-related operational data as part of its FRMS plan, it has no idea if its proposed collection method will be acceptable to the regulator.

When the company inquired about the status of its submission, their POI said on Oct. 13 that the assigned SME at Transport Canada had yet to respond.

If no feedback is received from the regulator by Dec. 12, Wiskemann said he’s unsure how to operate.

“We know the prescriptive regs will be implemented that day, but we don’t know how they will be enforced or handled,” he told Skies. “In the beginning stages, our FRMS is a data collection process that will take some months. We assumed we’d like to begin collecting data on Nov. 1, but we have received no guidance, so we will continue as is for the time being. I have no idea how to follow the new rules unless I’m told how.”

Transport Canada’s Liu said there is no approval mechanism to commence operations under an FRMS.

“The air operator is only required to send a Notice of Intent to the Minister that it is compliant with CARs,” she wrote. “This is a free service and has no prescribed service standards. Depending on the nature of the request, Transport Canada will make every reasonable effort to provide feedback to air operators within a 10-day timescale.”

Pilatus Photo

She also clarified that while operators can submit their NOI before Dec. 12, they must continue to fly under the old regulations until that date has arrived.

Still, developing a customized FRMS can be a costly, labor-intensive process for operators. Wisk Air hired a consultant to assist with its plan. But, while it may seem easier to simply follow the prescriptive regulations, some operators say they will be far too limiting for their type of work.

“I see the prescriptive regs as hugely problematic for the operator to maintain their cost base and service level,” said Wiskemann. “My level of understanding is that the prescriptive regs would reduce the amount of flight and duty time. That will have a negative impact. It will cost more to become less efficient.

“We will have to hire additional pilots under the prescriptive regs, and they are scarce. It will impact the customer, too. As of Dec. 11, they can expect full service with the existing flight duty times. On the following day, costs will increase for them and will likely close down some programs.”

Paul Spring, president of Phoenix Heli-Flight in Fort McMurray, Alberta, agreed that taking the prescriptive path of compliance will impact the current level of service his company provides. He, too, plans to submit an NOI accompanied by an FRMS proposal.

“We’ve been doing our learning like a lot of other operators,” he said.

Phoenix Heli-Flight has been working with its POI, but questions remain about the turn-around time for FRMS proposals.

“We hope to submit our NOI a week before the deadline. Everyone [in the industry] is busy now. We’re short mechanics. We’re short pilots. You can imagine how many of those NOI submissions will come in at the eleventh hour.”

He estimated that it could cost Phoenix Heli-Flight in the range of $185,000 to $220,000 to get a compliant fatigue management program up and running, including hiring extra employees and administrative costs.

“My impression from Ottawa is they agree this will cost us more money. They think [the cost] should be passed along to customers. But they are not ready for that.”

More Communication Needed

Spring believes many operators are still unsure about how NOI and FRMS proposals will be evaluated, approved, and enforced.

“My understanding is that after Dec. 12, we should operate in accordance with the plan we submitted,” he said. “If Transport Canada doesn’t accept that plan and we don’t hear about it for months, what then? If we make modifications, what will be the turn time on those?

“So much depends on the communication with Transport Canada. There are still a lot of question marks. My general thoughts are Transport Canada isn’t ready for this.”

Spring thinks that most mid- to large-size operations will opt to develop their own FRMS, in order to manage their work and keep clients happy.

However, he is concerned about the other operations who might choose to follow the prescriptive regulations.

“My biggest concern is, will those people even be monitored? Will their paperwork be accurate? The good, safety-driven operators will continue to do the right thing, and work within the system. The other remote and marginal operators will continue to do what they’ve always done.”

Today, Phoenix Heli-Flight employs 16 pilots. Spring said he’s unsure what he’ll need in the future.

“That will depend on whether our FRMS is approved.”

Wisk Air’s Mark Wiskemann said he’s unsure how to operate if he hasn’t received feedback on his proposed FRMS by Transport Canada’s Dec. 12 deadline. Mike Reyno Photo

As Dec. 12 draws closer, air operators are hoping for clear communication from Transport Canada. 

“There has been very little guidance,” said Wisk Air’s Wiskemann. “And, really, it’s quite complicated for the Transport inspectors, too. They themselves probably don’t have a firm action plan in place. Our POI is very cooperative and it seems like the bottleneck is in Toronto.”

He concluded: “I believe most operators would agree that for folks who are creating their own manual and collecting data for a variance, [these regulations] are not fully cooked and it will be difficult to get clarity.”

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