Pilots have tremendous The recent incident at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) involving Air Canada (ADH2) flight 759 reminds this statement. Aviation expert, Max Trescott, determined that the Air Canada (ADH2) pilots were at eleven seconds from crashing on the taxiway and colliding with four fully loaded airliners. In total, more than 1,000 people were seated in those five aircraft. Only few seconds too late to overshoot and July 7th, 2017 would have made history as the day marking the worst civil aviation catastrophe to ever happen.

Decision-making is important in aviation. Any aviator truly understands this when realizing how great are his/her responsibilities. These high responsibilities bring great authority. Any aviator will quickly learn the following – as the pilot-in-command (the “PIC”) you are the “Boss” on board and that whether you are flying a Cessna Skylane, Beechcraft King Air 250Boeing 737 NextGen, or Airbus A380. Your flight instructor will quickly tell you this important axiom from day one.

1.      Where does this authoritative axiom come from?

Historically speaking, the marine sector largely inspired aviation. In fact, several aviation pioneers – especially navigators – were at first hand skilled sailors. There are many factual elements to support this maritime influence. For instance, when it comes to navigation, aviators ironically use the “Nautical Miles” (equivalent to one minute of arc at the equator or 1.852 km) as the international standard unit to calculate distance. Aviators also use “Knots” (1 knot/h = 1.852 km/h) as a unit of speed which derived from a 500 year-old Dutch technique using knots on a rope to measure the distance, and a specific hourglass calculating the time that the ship sails within that distance. An aviator will use the same terms as a sailor to describe how an aircraft fly through a mass of air. Indeed, an aircraft – just like a ship sailing on the sea – rolls, pitches and yaws. Also, the PIC – usually the flight crew member sitting on the left seat – is commonly called “Captain” which is the highest ranked officer of the aircraft just like fellows navigating their ship on the big blue.

More importantly, holding the absolute authority, the sea captain was forever depicted as an “overlord” on board. But this prestigious status came with its load of responsibilities as the sea captain is the ultimate officer responsible for the safety of the ship, the deliverance of the goods, and of course the lives of his men. And being a sea captain is still one of the most stringent and demanding job in the world as the Ship Master is subject to several international conventions such as the Safety of Life at Sea regulations, Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping, and International Safety Management. Pursuant to the Rule of the Sea, the captain, officers and crew never abandon the ship until all passengers and crew are accounted for, and everything possible has been done to save them. During the Costa Concordia disaster, Captain Francesco Schettino did not experience this notion – he was later found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced for sixteen years in prison. The evidence showed that Captain Schettino escaped on his lifeboat instead of supervising the passenger evacuation as any responsible sea captain must perform in an emergency situation. An Italian Coast Guard famously yelled at him “Vada a bordo, cazzo! – meaning literally as “Get the ***k back on board!”

That mentioned, can we make a parallel between these findings and the actual status of the PIC of an aircraft? The International Civil Aviation Organization’s Rules of Air seem to go in that sense:

2.4 Authority of pilot-in-command of an aircraft: The pilot-in-command of an aircraft shall have final authority as to the disposition of the aircraft while in command”

But as we are analysing the question under a Canadian angle, we must look how Parliament/Government has legally scoped the PIC’s authority.

Is the PIC an overlord on board of the aircraft?

2.      The Main Actors on Board

First, we have to define the different actors.

In Canada, the crew members' legal definitions, responsibilities and authority are outlined by the Aeronautics Act (the “Act”) and the Canadian Aviation Regulations (the “CARs”).

CAR 101.01 defines “crew member” as:

“a person assigned to duty in an aircraft during flight time”

Logically, this means that the PIC, flight crew members (second-in-command) and flight attendants are all included within this definition.

 a.     Pilot-In-Command

 The Act defines the PIC as:

 “the pilot having responsibility and authority for the operation and safety of the aircraft during flight time”

 This is easy enough to understand when one flies solo one’s own Cessna 172.

 However, in the commercial context, the PIC does not operate the flight alone and has “pilot colleagues” to help him/her out. This is what we call in the jargon “flight crew member”.

 b.     Flight Crew Member

 CAR 101.01 provides the following definition for flight crew member:                                             

“a crew member assigned to act as pilot or flight engineer of an aircraft during flight time”

 Flight crew member refers therefore to junior pilots such as the second-in-command (the “SIC”) or flight officer. This is important to understand as CAR 602 provides different levels of requirements toward the PIC and the other the flight crew members – the responsibility usually falls under the PIC’s shoulders. In the private operations context, CAR 604.26 requires the private operator to designate prior any flight who will act as the PIC and the SIC. The private operator must retain the information for 180 days. CARs 702.64, 704.126, 705.103 require also the air operator to designate who will be the PIC and the SIC prior any commercial flights.

Pilots are continually under the scrutiny of Transport Canada and their training is on-going.

c.      Flight Attendant

CAR 101.01 defines flight attendants as:

“crew member[s], other than a flight crew member, who has been assigned duties to be performed in the interest of the passengers in a passenger-carrying aircraft”

Whether the aircraft is operated under an air operator certificate or a private operator certificate, flight attendants are before anything else highly trained professionals (CARs 604.179 and 705.109) who ensure and enforce safety during the whole flight.

d.     Passengers

Finally, since most commercial aircraft move people from point A to point B, there are usually passengers on board. CAR 101.01 simply defines these guys as:

“a person, other than a crew member, who is carried on board an aircraft”

Sorry for animal lovers but pets are not passenger according to the law.

e.     “Flight time”?

If we look carefully at the definitions mentioned above, the CARs use the term “during flight time”. Flight time in Canadian aviation refers to the time between the moments that the aircraft moves by its own power to proceed for takeoff until the moment it comes for full stop. 

3. The answer: CAR 602.05

As the PIC is the ultimate person having the responsibility and authority for operation and safety of the aircraft during the flight– the crew members are legally under his command pursuant to CAR 602.05.

(2) Every crew member on board an aircraft shall, during flight time, comply with the instructions of the pilot-in-command or of any person whom the pilot-in-command has authorized to act on behalf of the pilot-in-command”

Airlines have their own policies based on flight experience to establish which of the pilots will be designated as the PIC and SIC during the flight. In the general aviation context, however, it could be a bit more complex. Obviously when the flight student is flying dual with the flight instructor, the latter will be designated as the PIC. Only once authorized to fly solo, the flight student will be able to log PIC in the logbook. That said, there are rules and legal principles that can make the air operator (flight school) liable if the flight student crash for example, but this is out of the scope of this article.

CAR 602.05 also states:

(1) Every passenger on board an aircraft shall comply with instructions given by any crew member respecting the safety of the aircraft or of persons on board the aircraft”

This means that when the flight attendant tells you to turn off your electrical device before taking off or landing, she/he has the authority under the CARs to do so – and you must do it.


Obviously the characterization presented above is overstated: PICs are no tyrants such as Alexander of Macedon, William the Bastard or Genghis Khan but they do share important skills with these three commanders. Legally speaking as the ultimate person responsible for the safety of the flight, the PIC must not only display a strong sense of leadership towards crew members and passengers, but also great decision-making aptitudes when odds occur. The PIC must also respect the competencies and professionalism of their colleagues because without them, they certainly can’t accomplish their missions.

This is what we call in aviation “Crew Resource Management” – today’s PIC is rather a “manager” than a “commander” from the old days.

Any person willing to start flight training whether for recreational or career purposes must understand and accept from day one that she/he will be legally responsible for the decisions and manoeuvers taken during the flight, and accept the authority coming with it. Flying is a privilege in Canada – holding pilot licences/ratings brings its weight off. I could have represented the legal relationship set by the CARs under a “pyramidal structure”, but I do not agree with this way of representing relations between highly trained and skilled professionals, and rightfully so because pilots are no overlords on board.

This article was written by Alexis David Fafard, LL.L., J.D., Ottawa Aviation Services and can also be found at Flying Policies blog.