Oil operators off Newfoundland want flexibility to fly after dark

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Oil companies want more flexibility for when they can fly staff to remote sites off Newfoundland and are now assessing logistics, says the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

No regulatory change has been proposed while operators study those details, said spokeswoman Jill Piccott in an email Thursday.

“They are still looking for some additional flexibility in the helicopter flying day and are working right now on the logistics of what that could look like.”

Piccott said there is no timeline for approaching the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board about resuming night flights. Nor was there an update on what issues may be delaying that request.

A related response to the board from operators last year suggested an impasse involving safety oversight and the quality of simulator training for pilots.

“The establishment of an independent safety oversight management framework should not be viewed as a condition for the return to night flying,” it said.

Rather, operators wanted those trips to resume “predicated on a list of stated constraints and limitations” that Cougar Helicopters would help develop with the board.

Night flights to the Hibernia, Terra Nova and SeaRose sites more than 300 kilometres east of St. John’s were suspended in 2010 during a public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety. It was called after Cougar Flight 491 crashed the morning of March 12, 2009, killing 17 of 18 people on board.

“The potential for an extended flying day is still something the operators are looking at,” said Colleen McConnell of Husky Energy. The company operates the SeaRose production and storage vessel about 350 kilometres southeast of St. John’s.

“The flexibility … would involve leaving a little earlier in the morning and returning a little later in the afternoon (all landings and takeoffs at offshore facilities would still occur during daylight hours),” McConnell said in an email.

Lana Payne, Atlantic regional director of Unifor, said the union representing about 700 offshore workers is against the idea.

“We have the most dangerous operating environment in the world,” she said. “Unifor remains committed in its resolve that night flights are a riskier proposition for our members.”

Payne said as the days get shorter and the North Atlantic weather more volatile, the issue is a major concern for workers.

“We hear about it a lot,” she said. “I expect that the operators will be looking for an opening and that’s why we need to continue to be vigilant about it.”

Robert Wells, the retired provincial Supreme Court judge who led the helicopter safety inquiry, said in his final report that he could not recommend a return to regularly scheduled night flights.

“Asking passengers to fly at night adds considerable risk to that part of their work which is already the riskiest,” he wrote.

Wells has since praised improvements to offshore search and rescue equipment and response times.

Payne agreed, but said the union wants operators to clear travel backlogs by adding daytime flights.

“There is a way of dealing with this issue of added risk and safety and that is to increase the capacity of the fleet size.”

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