Mystery deepens over coast helicopter deal
OTTAWA - The Harper government's decision to grant Bell Helicopter Canada a special weight exemption for one its aircraft strained relations between Transport Canada and aviation safety regulators in the U.S. and Europe, federal documents show.
The declaration, involving the Bell model 429, was made over strenuous objections from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which complained that Transport Canada kept them in the dark about the significant regulatory change.
The adjustment, also the subject of a court challenge, increased the maximum weight gross weight limit to 3,400 kilograms, and allowed Bell to enter and recently win a $172-million contract to provide 15 light helicopters to the coast guard.
Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under Access to Information showed both international agencies felt sandbagged prior to the easing of the weight restriction in December 2011.
"EASA expressed disappointment that we had not given them a heads up about this exemption and about our intention to consider it," said a June 17, 2011 email from Transport Canada's director of policy and regulatory authority.
Emails between the agencies say the exception has also given the Mirabel, Que.-based company, a subsidiary of U.S. conglomerate Textron, a competitive advantage in more than a dozen other countries around the world.
Days after the complaint, the department's director of national aircraft certification wrote to the FAA that Canada have every intention of being "as transparent as possible" on a decision "we know may have repercussions on the rotocraft industry world."
U.S. and European officials were deeply skeptical, worried about the impact on safety and wondered whether Canada was making the change to just please Bell. They were also uneasy about the secrecy and urged Canadian officials to bring the discussion out of the back rooms.
"We must also consider whether this is an industry-wide concern, or a single companies (sic) business concern," said a U.S. official, whose name was censored from an email, dated July 7, 2011.
"In other words, what's good for Bell may or may not be good for the industry. If it is an industry wide issue, we would welcome a public debate with industry and regulators to consider the need for future rulemaking."
One day later, the Europeans added their voice saying: "it would be more beneficial to consider an open rule-making process."
Bell President Barry Kohler said his company is not the only one that has been granted weight exemptions at one time or another.
He said the manufacturer is currently working with the FAA, EASA and the industry to modernize the regulations that govern this issue.
The intent is to have rules that "more accurately meet the needs of modern rotorcraft operations in a way that will more efficiently introduce newer technologies that can improve safety," he said in an email.
The added weight is critical for commercial clients, such as helicopter ambulance and law enforcement, "who need the increased range and load for emergency services, and is increasingly important in remote (and) rural areas."
When it first heard Transport Canada was considering a weight exemption in 2011, rival Airbus Helicopters Canada warned in writing that would set "a dangerous precedent in the helicopter industry, with safety driven certification being bypassed at the request of a singe manufacturer rather than through the efforts of an industry wide working group, as current practise."
The company has since launched a Federal Court challenge of the light helicopter tender process.
The Airbus letter stated other countries — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Ecuador, India, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Thailand, Venezuela and Vietnam — accept Transport Canada certification and the decision would lead to "an unfair global competition" and a "large, detrimental economic impact" for rivals to Bell.
Kohler denied the company has been given an unfair leg-up, saying the model 429 is at a disadvantage because its older rivals were certified under less stringent conditions and their acceptance has been "grandfathered."
When the company applied to the FAA for a weight exemption similar to the one in Canada, it was turned down. U.S. authorities noted that the relief sought, if granted, would put "29 rotocraft manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage owing to the greater costs to certify and produce" their aircraft.
In its Aug. 13, 2012 ruling, the U.S. agency said exemptions should "remain primarily a safety decision," not a business decision.
The Europeans added separately that they had not "been provided with clear evidence" that a new increased weight limit "would benefit the sector."
Bell has submitted a petition for reconsideration to the FAA.
Transport Canada says it conducted a safety risk assessment and concluded that "granting the exemption would be acceptable provided certain design and operational conditions are imposed."
The department did not elaborate on the conditions.
"The department concluded that this helicopter can work at the increased weight threshold to a maximum of eight occupants while meeting the current high safety standards," spokeswoman Karine Martel said in an email.
Further, she said if other helicopters makers wanted to apply for the same exemption their request "would be given equal consideration and assessed on its own merit."