Canada's airport runways aren't as long as they need to be (and the feds' plans won't fix them)
Ten years ago, a TSB investigation recommended extending safety areas on Canadian runways. It still hasn't happened— despite several accidents.
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The 297 passengers and 12 crew members were at the end of their eight hour trip from Paris to Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Aug. 2, 2005 when the landing went wrong.
In heavy rain, Air France’s Airbus 340 landed too far down the 9,000-foot runway, skidded and then all 185-tonnes of aircraft shot off the end at almost 150 kilometres an hour.
Miraculously, when the plane crashed into a ravine and caught fire, no one was killed, but 10 passengers and two crew members were seriously injured.
Twelve years later, 10 years after a Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigation called for runways to have longer end-safety areas, Transport Canada, which actually sets the rules for airports, is only now consulting on possible extensions.
There have been at least 16 other runway-overrun accidents in that time.
Despite the board's suggestions, Transport Canada is also only calling for a 150-metre safety area -- half of what the accident report called for and below international recommendations.
“There is risk to passengers and property, because Canada doesn’t meet the international standard,” said Kathy Fox, chair of the Transportation Safety Board.
Today, Canadian airports must have 60-metres at the end of runways and are encouraged to have an additional 90-metres. Transport Canada’s proposed recommendation would make that 90-metres mandatory for a total of 150 metres of space.
Safety areas are essentially buffers of level ground that aircraft can slow down in when things go wrong. Ideally, planes land on runways, but ideal situations aren’t the TSB’s concern.
In the Air France investigation, TSB recommended extending runway end-safety areas to 300 metres. Air France came to a stop within that distance, but was in the ravine.
The 300-metre distance aligns with a recommendation the International Civil Aviation Organization made in 1999 and it’s standard at American and most European airports.
Fox said they firmly believe airport runways should have the full 300-metre buffer, which they identified after looking at a U.S. study.
“They found that in 90 per cent of all of the runway overruns the aircraft came to a stop within 1,000 feet or 300 metres of the runway end,” she said.
The Air Canada Pilots Association, the largest association of pilots in the country, agrees with the board.
“It’s very disappointing to see Transport Canada come up with the minimum required,” said Daniel Cadeaux, chair of the organization’s flight safety division.
He said even where airports might not have the physical space, there are engineered stopping systems, already in use at American airports, that could do the job.
“The systems are there. The engineering is there. The technology is there. We just have to apply it.”
Cadeaux said the money collected from passengers should go to this kind of upgrade instead of renovating terminals with more retail space.
“We have those airport improvement fees, but we should call them terminal improvement fees.”
Transport Canada spokesperson Pierre Manoni said while the agency is consulting it would be too early to comment. In an email, he stressed the international standard is only a suggestion.
“The 300-metre runway end safety area length was a recommendation made by the International Civil Aviation Organization, but the standard length remains at 150 metres.”
He also argued Transport Canada is taking other steps as well to make landings safe.
“Runway end-safety areas are one part of the overall safety requirements.”
Some Canadian airports have made the upgrades, but most haven’t. Fox believes the cost and uncertainty on the rules might be behind those delays.
“Until they develop those standards airports may be reluctant to implement something that might not meet the standard.”