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TORONTO, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Regulators threatened to ground Canada's Porter Airlines over safety problems in 2008, according to documents reviewed by Reuters, but the matter was kept secret for years - a sign, some critics say, of how little the public is told about the safety of Canadian airlines.
The documents, prepared by staff at the federal transport regulator, show that in early October that year, Canadian government inspectors scored Porter at only two on a scale of one to five, where five is best and three indicates compliance. The threat was first reported in the Canadian media in 2011 but the score and some of the reasons for it have not been previously disclosed.
Reuters got access to the documents in June from Transport Canada, the nation's main transport regulator, under Canada's Access to Information Act.
Porter had fought for years to prevent Transport Canada from releasing them in the face of media applications filed under that law. And while a court ruled against Canada's No. 3 airline in 2014, the judge still allowed the documents to be heavily redacted by Transport Canada, meaning that many details are blacked out.
Porter did not have to suspend flights, and was able to satisfy the regulator within two months that it had dealt with its most serious problems.
But the secrecy surrounding the episode has prompted safety advocates to warn that Transport Canada and Canadian airlines are keeping the public in the dark about safety questions.
Transport Canada said in response to questions from Reuters that it has to balance transparency against privacy laws. It said in a statement that it felt no need to make the warning to Porter public, and that in the end it was satisfied with the airline's corrective measures.
"The decision to make a notice of suspension public is made on a case-by-case basis, and is not taken lightly," it said.
Porter pointed out in a statement that the assessment is nearly seven years old and said it had carried out all required maintenance work. Porter also said it has increased training and added investigators as it has expanded.
"The matter in question related to administrative paperwork and procedural issues that were subsequently addressed by Porter in a timely, proactive manner to the satisfaction of Transport Canada," it said. "No operational safety issues were involved."
Greg McConnell, president of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association union that represents government inspectors, reviewed the documents concerning Porter, but said it was difficult to conclude much given the redactions, which was a concern.
He said the documents show how Transport Canada's work has changed over his career: "The documentation has become, almost, very secretive."
Canada was the first country in the world to require that airlines each create their own safety management system (SMS), after the approach was endorsed by the United Nations' aviation agency. The new approach put more emphasis on self-regulation by airlines, and less on inspections by the regulator. Some experts, such as McConnell, see that change as part of the reason for the lack of disclosure.
In Canada, inspectors' reviews now draw much more heavily on internal reports and data provided by the airlines, and the regulator does not disclose a lot of that material even when it receives applications from journalists and others under the access to information law. Transport Canada staff who handle such requests will often heavily redact the information in safety-related documents that they do release, citing the section of the law that protects trade secrets.
Recent evaluations of a number of Canadian airlines, including WestJet and closely-held Arctic airline First Air, requested by Reuters under the law, have come back with all of Transport Canada's conclusions and the evidence they were based on blacked out.
There are no indications either airline has serious problems, but the redactions make it impossible to make an independent assessment.
"WestJet requested redactions in the recent Transport Canada audit report because we believe more background and context is needed to fully understand the culture of safety at our airline," the airline said in a statement. It said the audit found administrative issues that were quickly corrected.
First Air CEO Brock Friesen said transparency was in the public's best interest: "We did not request these redactions from TC, especially since the document in question is showing minor findings, largely administrative in nature," he said in an emailed statement.
Transport Canada said in a statement that it releases information under access to information "in a way that is compliant with the provisions of the law."
Ken Rubin, a Canadian safety advocate and researcher, says the increased "self-policing" has been bad for transparency. "I can tell you that when I first applied in the early '80s for air inspection reports and audits, I used to get them," he said. "They became less accessible."
The SMS approach was designed to improve safety, ensuring that airlines find and fix problems before they cause an accident, and take broad responsibility for improving safety instead of just following the direction of regulators.
SMS, which will be mandatory for most U.S. airlines in 2018, also can keep a regulator's inspection costs under control, an important consideration as the airline industry continues to grow rapidly across the globe. A 2013 report from Canada's Library of Parliament, the research arm of Canada's parliament, said the adoption of SMS was being driven partly by regulators' "limited resources."
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said that calling SMS self-regulation is a "basic misunderstanding." It said the change will make airlines more proactive, giving them processes to identify and reduce risk, without relaxing existing protections.
"SMS requires compliance with technical standards but also promotes a safety culture to improve the overall performance of the organization," the FAA said in a statement, adding that SMS will not replace FAA inspections and audits.
Before the new system, there were examples of greater disclosure. In 1996, Transport Canada issued a notice of suspension to then-new WestJet, threatening to ground the airline unless it fixed problems with its maintenance system. The department put out a news release, and the airline, now Canada's No. 2 carrier, chose to briefly suspend flights, though it disputed the findings.
Some support SMS in principle, but criticize its implementation. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), a federal watchdog agency, has praised SMS, saying it can help companies manage risk.
But the TSB has also cited major concerns, highlighting crashes and near-misses that came after Transport Canada failed to identify problems with companies' safety processes. One case it cited was a 2011 First Air crash in northern Canada, which killed 12 people. Upon investigation, the TSB found problems with First Air's safety management system.
Transport Canada said it takes the TSB's recommendations very seriously, and has made "significant progress" to address the board's concerns, but did not offer any detail on what it has changed.
In Porter's case, Transport Canada inspectors said the airline was taking too long to address potential safety problems flagged by its employees. Inspectors issued a notice of suspension, warning the airline that its operating certificate could be revoked if it did not fulfill several conditions.
"Your organization has demonstrated that your maintenance program and maintenance system does not meet the minimum regulatory requirements," said Transport Canada in 2008 in a letter to Porter CEO Robert Deluce that has not been previously disclosed.
Porter said its most recent Transport Canada evaluation in 2014 had no negative findings. But it declined to share that report, saying public disclosure can lead to misunderstandings.
"We believe that overall passenger safety is best served by ensuring that our team members freely report safety matters without worrying about repercussions of being associated with public reports," it said. (Additional reporting by Susan Taylor; Editing by Amran Abocar and Martin Howell)