TSB featured article

Recipe for Disaster? Do Nothing and Hope You Get Lucky

By Kathy Fox, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

(This article was initially published in the November-December 2011 issue of Wings.)

A jumbo airliner makes its final approach into a busy metropolitan airport during a heavy thunderstorm. The passengers are nervous, visibility is poor, and by the time the wheels touch down, over a third of the rain-slicked runway has already vanished. Worse, the brief space remaining is disappearing at a frightening rate …

Fiction or reality? Think of Air France Flight 358 landing at Toronto’s Pearson Airport in August 2005. Two questions make that scenario even more frightening.

What if we knew in advance how to prevent this?

What if we did nothing?

At the Transportation Safety Board, investigating accidents is part of our job. When something goes wrong—on our waterways, along our railroads or pipelines, or in our skies—we find out what happened, why, and hopefully how to prevent it in the future. But our work doesn’t stop with the completion of an investigation or the publication of a report. Our mandate is to improve transportation safety, not just report on it—and that means speaking up if a risk still remains, and pushing for change when not enough has been done.

To that end, we released our safety Watchlist in March 2010, highlighting nine key safety issues posing the greatest risk to Canadians. But what was first envisioned as a “blueprint for change” is starting to look like a blueprint for finding roadblocks.

Sure, gains have been made—in some areas, dramatically. Marine ferry operators. Railway companies. Not only have concrete steps been taken in these areas, but more changes are on the horizon. In fact, since its release, the momentum generated by the Watchlist has allowed us to reassess seven of our recommendations with the TSB’s highest grade of “Fully Satisfactory.”

But what about the millions of Canadians who take commercial passenger flights each year? Have we done enough?

Sadly, no.

In March 2010, the TSB warned the public about the dangers of runway incursions at Canadian airports. We stated clearly that the ongoing risk of aircraft collisions with vehicles or other aircraft on the ground was too high, and we pushed for better warning systems. We also singled out the danger of landing accidents and overruns, and we urged airports to lengthen the runway end safety areas (RESA) or install other engineered arresting systems/structures.

Over a year later, we’re still waiting.

Placing all the blame on the regulator, though, is too simplistic. Sure, Transport Canada has been slow to implement the kinds of changes that would make runways safer, but they’re not the only ones with a role to play.

That’s why we’re appealing to you, the change agents. You fly Canada’s planes. You run Canada’s airports, direct the air traffic, and you help millions of people arrive safely at their destinations. You are in the perfect position, not only to see where the very real problems lie—but what can be done to fix them. Waiting for regulations? That won’t help make things safer today. And by not making things safer today … well, that sounds an awful lot like an excuse to pass the buck.

Here, then, is the kind of action we’d like to see.

The Board is concerned that incursions and the risk of collisions will remain until better defenses are put in place. Canada’s airports need enhanced collision-warning systems. As for landing accidents and runway overruns, solutions are equally well-known. Pilots need to calculate if sufficient landing distance is available and receive timely information about runway surface conditions, particularly during bad weather. And airports need to lengthen the safety areas at the end of runways or install other engineered systems and structures to safely stop planes that overrun.

Look, this doesn’t need to be a problem.

Already, Transports Canada is proposing that runways be made compliant with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standard of a 90 m RESA beyond the 60 m runway end strip (for a total of 150 m). Going further, a move toward the ICAO-recommended 300 m standard hasn’t been ruled out.

Those changes are still a ways off, but here is the key: just because they aren’t yet mandatory, doesn’t mean they’re not good ideas. Do we need to revisit the specter of Air France Flight 358, hurtling off the runway at 80 knots? What about the hundreds of near-misses on runways across Canada? How long until someone—or some people—find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time?

If we’re lucky, no one will be hurt when that happens. But why rely on luck? Why not take action today, especially when we’re all working toward the same goal? We already know what the dangers are, so let’s make our nation’s transportation system as safe as it can be.

Instead of waiting until next time.