Inspector: First Air bungling threatened passenger safety

Airline pleads guilty to five charges, hires dangerous goods specialist and pays $105,000 fine.

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

SEAN McKIBBON

IQALUIT — The lives of passengers on board a First Air flight from Yellowknife to Taloyoak were put in serious danger by the improper handling of dangerous cargo by First Air employees, an inspector with Transport Canada has told Nunatsiaq News.

The placement of six propane tanks on board a Hawker Siddley 748 on May 24, 1998 posed a significant risk to the passengers on board, said Herb Kretzer, a dangerous goods inspector with Transport Canada.

“If you’re asking if the safety of the passenger was in jeopardy, certainly it was,” said Kretzer.

The incident was one of three that netted the airline a hefty fine for violating the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act and a two year period of probation.

Although some dangerous goods are allowed on board passenger flights, propane bottles are never allowed with passengers, said Kretzer. The bottles have vents to release propane if pressure inside the bottle becomes too great.

“Flying bomb”

“When a propane bottle is taken 30,000 feet in the air, the pressure inside increases rapidly. It is possible for these vents to release their contents. If there’s just a small spark inside the aircraft, this would be a flying bomb,” he said

“The partition between the cargo area and the passengers is very flimsy and it’s not air tight it’s not fire proof or anything, this is why we’re so concerned about it,” Kretzer said.

The propane tank incident was reported by a passenger who saw the tanks being unloaded and then reloaded during a stop-over in Gjoa Haven. The passenger asked the plan’s pilot about it and found the captain hadn’t been aware that the tanks were on board.

First Air pleaded guilty Sept. 1, 1999 to a total of five charges stemming from the improper handling of dangerous goods on board three separate flights.

In one incident, a toxic chemical, hydroquinine, was loaded on to a 737 combi-jet on March 5, 1999 without documentation and without the pilot’s knowledge.

“It was being carried next to a large consignment of groceries,” Kretzer said. “The box even had a skull and cross bones on it.”

Not only is proper documentation required for such goods, Kretzer said, but cargo handlers must also be able to produce documents certifying them as qualified to handle dangerous goods.

“Whoever put it on board just put it on board as general cargo,” said Kretzer.

A ramp inspection by a Transport Canada dangerous goods inspector revealed the hydroquinine incident.

Leaking fuel

On June 19, 1999, a pilot discovered that an airplane engine being carried as cargo had been improperly stored and was leaking fuel.

The pilot of that flight had to turn the plane around and land in Yellowknife to get the leak cleaned up. It was another case, said Kretzer, of improper handling of dangerous goods.

“No one is questioning our safety,” said First Air’s vice president of marketing and communications, James Ballingal, when asked if the incident had spurred any decline in ridership.

“We carry 20 million kilos of cargo a year. Two-hundred-and-fifteen-thousand kilos of that is dangerous goods. We do it and we do it very well,” said Ballingal.

“Bottom line is we didn’t pay enough attention to it. We took it for granted,” he said.

First Air was given a $105,000 fine by Judge Brian Bruser, who heard the case in NWT territorial court in Yellowknife.

He also gave the company two years probation, during which the company has to improve its handling of dangerous goods and develop an audit system to detect any problems in the handling of dangerous goods.

The company must also provide a report to Transport Canada and to the Airline Transportation Association of Canada no later than Dec. 8.

Article in magazine

First Air was ordered to publish an article in their in-flight magazine about why dangerous goods are transported from time to time with passengers and to address any concerns they might have.

Such charges against airlines are rare, Kretzer said. More often charges are laid against shippers attempting to save money by not labeling dangerous goods as dangerous.

First Air does have a good training program for its employees, Kretzer said, one that’s approved by Transport Canada and that employees have to take every year.

“What happened here was that all of the training they had was not put into practice.”

To rectify the problem, Ballingal said, First Air has hired a dangerous goods specialist, has completed an internal audit to find and correct any problems with procedures, and will now hold monthly meetings dealing only with dangerous goods with their senior executives.

“Dangerous goods are an everyday part of our business,” said Ballingal. “There’s no room in this one to not stay focused on it.”

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