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Porter among Canadian airlines lacking life-saving defibrillators on flights

A Porter Airlines Inc. Q400 plane stands on the tarmac at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport on April 10, 2013. Short-haul flights flying out of Billy Bishop airport do not carry defibrillators as Canadian safety regulations for the life-saving equipment lag behind American regulations.

Norm Betts/Bloomberg

Short-haul flights flying out of Toronto's Billy Bishop airport do not carry defibrillators as Canadian safety regulations for the life-saving equipment lag behind American regulations.

While most air carriers, including WestJet, Air Transat and Air Canada, have voluntarily carried automated external defibrillators (AED) for a decade, Porter has opted out and has no plans to install the device.

Jazz, which operates flights under the Air Canada Express brand, has started training flight attendants in AED use and will begin installing them "within the next few weeks," spokeswoman Debra Williams said in an e-mail.

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The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States has mandated that all passenger planes large enough to require at least one flight attendant be equipped with an AED since 2004.

Canada's air regulator, Transport Canada, has not followed suit, despite lobbying by medical experts.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation advocates for Transport Canada to require AEDs on board all medium and large aircraft, regardless of the duration of flight.

But Transport Canada "is not looking to change the regulations to mandate the installation of AEDs in all aircraft," spokesperson Natasha Gauthier says. Transport Canada does mandate that flight attendants be trained to use on-board emergency equipment and requires medical kits on aircraft.

The easy-to-use AEDs are common sightings at airports, hockey rinks and schools and can deliver an electrical shock to restart someone's heart when it has stopped beating, a condition known as cardiac arrest. But the shock will work only if it's applied quickly.

"Using an AED within the first few minutes [of cardiac arrest] is virtually the only chance of restarting the heart," says Andrew Lotto, senior manager of resuscitation operations at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. He says that survival from cardiac arrest decreases 7 per cent to 10 per cent for every minute an AED isn't applied.

Dr. Ian Stiell, a professor at the University of Ottawa and senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital, says "AEDs should be mandated on Canadian commercial airplanes. This is now standard life-saving equipment for public places."

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Porter says it doesn't need AEDs because it doesn't fly long distances and can land quickly to summon help on the ground. "As a regional carrier, we have the ability to divert to any airport in a short amount of time," the company said in an e-mail.

But it takes at least 30 minutes to plan and execute an emergency landing, says T.J. Doyle, medical director of U.S.-based STAT MD, an aviation medical consultation service.

"If there is no law, [airlines] can do what they want," he says.

Emergency experts say time is too precious to wait for a plane to make an emergency landing. "You can't wait to land. You have to put [an AED] on immediately," says Hamilton emergency physician Michelle Welsford, who is a member of the scientific advisory group that writes resuscitation guidelines.

"I can't believe in 2017 there are planes flying without defibrillators," Dr. Welsford says.

Ireland-based Ryanair bowed to public pressure and bought AEDs for its planes after the 2015 death of 47-year-old Davina Tavener on board.

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"I don't believe there is any difference between short-haul flights and long-haul flights," coroner Alan Walsh said in his ruling at the time, adding "cardiac events don't choose whether they are 10 minutes into a flight or 10 hours into a flight, it can happen at any time."

There were nearly 60,000 medical emergencies aboard commercial flights last year when global air traffic hit a new record of 3.6 billion, about 16 for every one million trips.

Porter carried 2.8 million passengers in 2016.

Dr. Blair Bigham is a paramedic, physician and scientist, who was a Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Video: Garneau says air travel bill addresses compensation for overbooked flights (The Canadian Press)
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