HAC leading objections to Starspeed’s exemption request

Avatar for Treena HeinBy Treena Hein | May 17, 2022

Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 11 seconds.

The Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) and the Northern Air Transport Association (NATA) are among the representative bodies strongly objecting to a U.K. operator’s request for exemptions to the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) that would allow it to perform flightseeing operations from a cruise ship in the Arctic.

Quark Expeditions' Ultramarine cruise ship has two helidecks and hangars, and can carry two helicopters. Quark Expeditions Photo
Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine cruise ship has two helidecks and hangars, and can carry two helicopters. Quark Expeditions Photo

“It’s very serious, not only for the rotary-wing sector, but for the Canadian aviation industry as a whole,” Trevor Mitchell, HAC’s president and CEO told Vertical.

The company in question — Starspeed Limited — submitted the exemption request with Transport Canada (TC) in late 2021 to begin operations in fall 2022 for a minimum of 18 months. Mitchell said the idea presents a wide range of significant safety concerns, largely resulting from the level of experience required for safe operations in the Arctic.

“Canadian companies are renowned for working safely in the north,” he said. “Furthermore, there are very experienced Canadian companies that have already provided these exact services to the cruise ship line in question, Quark Expeditions. These companies have bases and other critical infrastructure already in place to handle emergencies.”

Mitchell said the requested exemptions relate to the application of subparagraph 61(a)(i) of the Act and from Part VII, Subparts 1,2 and sections of subpart 3, which prevent an aircraft not registered in Canada operating between two points within Canada. According to Starspeed, the helicopters to be used for the operation — two Airbus H145s — will be registered in the U.K.

HAC is also concerned about the size of the exemptions sought. Because the three CARs sections refer to many other parts of CARs, the exemptions are “exponential,” said Mitchell. “This exemption request looks small on the surface, but it’s massive,” he said. “And there is no mechanism for recourse under Canadian law in relation to the operation of these aircraft if they are not governed by the CARs.”

He also expressed frustration with the timing of the notice. “TC received the request in late 2021, but this information wasn’t provided to industry for comment until April 27,” said Mitchell. “At that point, we were given five working days to respond. Other aviation associations have the same serious concerns that HAC has, but just didn’t have time to respond — nor should they have been expected to be able to respond in that timeframe.

“This issue has not been handled in anything close to a normal manner and no explanations have been given. But this dangerous and unprecedented request shouldn’t have gotten to the point of asking for industry comment. It should have been dismissed right away.”

Glenn Priestley, NATA’s executive director, echoed HAC’s concerns.

“This is wrong. Five days’ notice for complex input is not consultation,” he wrote in his response to TC. “What public is interested in having a foreign-registered cruise ship flying its own foreign-registered helicopters by foreign-registered pilots, not familiar with local flying knowledge, to bases/places they have never been before, with no local support in Canada’s most ecologically-sensitive territories?”

“This looks like the decision has been made already, and that is not right. There are Canadian operators that can do this service.”

Starspeed confident of meeting “unique challenges”

When contacted for comment by Vertical, Starspeed managing director Simon Mitchell said his firm has operated in over 65 countries, including “both the extreme southern and northern regions.” He noted the experience of his pilots and other crew (including two former Royal Navy pilots who have worked on the service’s ice patrol ship), and said they would work closely with Quark’s “polar experts” and “doctors specialized in emergency medicine” to manage all the risks of operating from a moving vessel to polar landing sites.

“It is a complete and integrated team effort and that is why it’s so important that the helicopter crews are the same and are part of the whole project all year round, because a lot of the safety training is as a whole project team working together,” he said.

Starspeed is proposing to use two UK-registered H145s for the operation. Quark Expeditions Photo
Starspeed is proposing to use two UK-registered H145s for the operation. Quark Expeditions Photo

“This is an impressively resourced and structured operation, and it has been set up to be a very self-contained operation, with two helicopters, two hangars, [and] two helidecks. In an emergency, we can use the other helicopter as a rescue/EMS operation and if we lose one deck, we have the second deck still available. Redundancy and resilience is built in everywhere.”

Simon Mitchell said the proposed venture has challenged regulatory authorities on two levels, the first of which is the variety of operational dimensions involved: commercial air transport offshore (HOFO), onshore passenger flying, sightseeing, specific or specialist operations and emergency medical services (EMS).

“The UK CAA Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) needed to spend around 12 months effectively ‘inventing’ an appropriate set of rules, as none of the existing sets were directly applicable,” he said.

Secondly, this type of operation presents unique challenges in terms of economic licensing. “It is not a conventional air transport operation because the helicopters only operate in support of the vessel and they have no stand-alone purpose separate to the needs and operational requirements of the cruise ship,” said Simon Mitchell.

Overall, he said the situation highlighted “a revolution in terms of a need for both new and different safety regulations (in this case, developed by the UK CAA) and it also needs a new set of economic regulations (or at least a different application of economic regulations) by the various Departments for Transportation” in different countries.

While Simon Mitchell said Starspeed has been performing this kind of function for many years with private super-yachts, he noted this kind of cruise ship support would be a “first of a kind.”

“The idea of dedicated helicopter operations permanently attached to specific cruise ships only works if you have a singular regulatory authority in control from start to finish,” he said. “It does not really matter whether that is Transport Canada, FAA, EASA or U.K. CAA, as long as it stays the same as the ship and helicopter travel around the world.”

A consequence of this, he said, “is necessarily a requirement that any given rule set that is applied is the highest industry standard anywhere in the world so that no regulatory authority can ‘undercut’ the more stringent rules elsewhere. And when it comes to operating from ships and with passengers, these are the rules generally set by IOGP and that form the basis of HOFO regulations.”

Simon Mitchell said this was the starting point adopted by the U.K. CAA when it reviewed Starspeed’s Safety Case for the operation. He added that the requirements for helicopter performance, survival equipment, pilot training, and heli deck certification are all based on IOGP and HOFO standards.

“Hopefully, if we can get all these things sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction, it will open other new areas of business and opportunities for helicopter operators around the world,” he said.

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