Airline suspends four mechanics

Four mechanics with Jazz were suspended pending a probe by the airline into comments they made.

Collision course; Air Canada Jazz employees flagged safety concerns to media

By Rob Cribb, Tamsin Mcmahon, Fred Vallance-Jones
The Hamilton Spectator

(Jun 13, 2006)

Air Canada Jazz has suspended four mechanics a day after they publicly raised concerns about safety at the airline.

Dave Avella, Gianni Ballestrin, Grant Anastas and Ron Anstey, all mechanics at Jazz' Toronto facility, were suspended with pay pending an investigation by the airline into comments they made, including allegations that they are pressured to release planes with defects that could compromise public safety.

Meanwhile, Transport Canada yesterday said it was launching an audit into Jazz's mechanical operations in the next three months. Lucy Vignola, a spokesperson for the regulator, said inspectors will examine the airline's mechanical standards for compliance with federal regulations. She says the regulator was not aware of the specific allegations made by the four mechanics and that it needs detailed information about incidents in order to properly investigate.

Debra Williams, a Jazz spokesperson, said the airline will investigate the mechanics' allegations.

"The suspensions are so we can have some time to review the concerns raised in the article, and why the mechanics chose to take that avenue when there are numerous internal options available to them," said Williams. "Pending the results of the investigation we'll see what transpires but we want the opportunity to review the concerns they raised in the article."

Swift action against the four whistleblowers is an attempt to silence important public information the public has a right to hear, said NDP transportation critic Peter Julian.

"What we are seeing increasingly is a drive for more secrecy and a drive to muzzle whistleblowers and I do not believe it's in the public interest," he said. "What is more fundamental for the public domain than essential safety information and knowing about violations of safety standards that might be taking place?"

Several Jazz mechanics who spoke with reporters, including the four who spoke publicly, say they've lodged complaints with Transport Canada inspectors about conditions at Jazz without response. The comments of the four mechanics included allegations that they are forced to cut corners in order to avoid costly delays in flight schedules, that some mechanical procedures are done in breach of regulations and that there's a poor level of training and scrutiny over mechanical repairs at the airline.

The four mechanics were among a dozen Jazz employees who raised safety concerns with reporters in interviews over the past three months. But they were the only ones quoted by name. While they had concerns about repercussions, they said they spoke out because public safety was more important than any disciplinary action. The other eight withheld their names because they feared repercussions.

Several mechanics who spoke with reporters agreed that a Jazz aircraft takes off with mechanical defects, on average, about once a week. The Jazz mechanics who spoke with reporters said they refuse to release planes with defects into service. But they say in many cases their superiors simply find another mechanic to sign the paperwork releasing the plane -- or sign it out themselves -- to avoid delays.

Some of the mechanics, including Anstey, say they are nervous flying their own airline.

Jazz, the subject of a highly critical audit by Transport Canada in 2003, denied all of the allegations in a written statement which said the airline "never compromises safety ... While on-time performance is definitely a goal at Jazz, we never sacrifice safety in order to achieve an on-time flight departure." The airline has had several high-profile mechanical incidents in the past several years including a 2002 incident in which a three-foot-long piece of the leading edge of the wing of a Jazz Dash 8 fell off on takeoff in Toronto. A Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigation found the potentially tragic mishap -- triggered by 14 missing screws that should have secured the part on the wing -- was caused by sloppy maintenance and the "undesirably low" ratio of experienced to inexperienced mechanics.

The company attributed the incident to human error.

A 2003 audit by Transport Canada audit of the airline found "the focus of the maintenance and operations departments was compromised to the extent that several of the most basic regulatory and quality control tasks had deteriorated." The company says those problems have been corrected.

A year later, pilots of another Jazz Dash 8 on a Toronto-to-Kingston route declared an emergency due to loose nuts in the plane's pitch control system that fell off. A TSB investigation found deficiencies in Jazz's mechanical procedures. The company says it took "immediate corrective action in response to the incident by implementing changes to its maintenance and flight operations procedures."

Tim Pearce, vice-president of the union representing Jazz' 750 mechanics, said he received word yesterday afternoon from company management that the four mechanics were being suspended for breaching the company's media relations policy.


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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