Friday, September 23, 2011

Canadian runways to be upgraded at a cost of $400 million

Canada's airport operators are howling after federal aviation officials Friday revealed it will cost them at least $400 million to bring runways up to international safety standards with longer overrun zones.

The move comes six years after an Air France airliner barrelled off a rain-slick Toronto runway and caught fire — and one year after the Transportation Safety Board of Canada warned that runway "excursions" and other landing safety issues pose one of the country's greatest transportation risks.

Transport Canada civil aviation officials informed industry executives meeting in Ottawa Friday the department is committed to a draft regulation requiring mandatory 150-metre, unobstructed emergency stopping zones at each end of many of the country's runways. The move is expected to receive final approval next year.

Canada is one of the few countries that still does not formally comply with the 1999 International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) minimum 150-metre runway "air bag" standard, much less the ICAO's recommended practice of 300-metre "runway end safety areas" or RESAs.

Major Code 3 and 4 runways at Canadian airports currently only require a graded, unobstructed buffer zone or "runway strip" extending 60 metres past the runway's end for last-ditch emergency stopping. The new, draft regulation would extended that safety zone by 90 metres. It would also apply to shorter runways used for instrument approaches.

Only about 50 of the 211 Canadian airports that will fall under the regulation already comply with or exceed the 150-metre RESA, including Ottawa International Airport, which has 300-metre RESAs. The draft regulation will apply to all major runways as well as shorter ones used for instrument landings.

A Transport Canada analysis of runway excursions between 1990 and 2010 found 424 incidents, in 91 per cent of which the planes stopped within 150 metres of the runway ends. Most occurred at smaller airports and involved propeller planes.

A departmental cost-benefit analysis estimates the upgrades will cost about $400 million. As the proposal stands, airports will have five years to complete the work once the regulation goes into force.

Jacqueline Booth, Transport Canada's acting-director of civil aviation standards, told the gathering it is not within the department's safety mandate to fund the improvements, though she has made "sure that my senior management is aware of the financial implications of moving forwards with this."

Airport operators, including representatives from several provincial governments, believe the final costs will likely be much higher and will disproportionately affect smaller airports, especially remote and northern ones, and vowed Friday to file letters of dissent.

"Regulation for which (federal) funding is unavailable is destined to fail and a regulatory initiative destined for failure is not acceptable in our country," Ben Webber, assistant director of programs and standards with the Northwest Territories' department of transportation, told the meeting of the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council.

Installing RESAs at 11 airports in the Northwest Territories will cost an estimated $40 million, he said. "With a population of around 43,000, this would mean an expenditure of almost $1,000 for each man, woman and child in the Northwest Territories."

At airports where topography, development, environmental concerns or other limitations don't allow for expansion, Transport Canada says an acceptable alternative would be installation of arrestor beds, built from crushable material that can quickly decelerate a speeding plane. But they, too, can cost more than $1 million each.

Dozens of arrestor beds have been installed at about 30 U.S. airports, with more planned. The FAA credits the technology with saving at least six flights from disaster, including fully stopping a Boeing 747 that overran a runway at New York's JFK airport during a heavy snowstorm in 2005.

Canada's two major airline pilots' associations support the move.

"The Number 1 cause of aviation fatalities today is runway overruns or underruns," said Capt. Barry Wiszniowski of the Air Canada Pilots Association. "Years ago it was controlled flight into terrain. That was addressed by an investment by the aviation industry into making aviation safer.

"Today, we have another threat that affects air transportation globally, nationally, locally, and yet there seems to be a reluctance to make that investment to improve that safety. It has to be addressed."

There was no RESA on runway 24L at Toronto's Pearson airport when the Air France jet carrying 309 people skidded off the 9,000-foot landing strip in 2005.

A 150-metre open stretch of land beyond the runway's pavement provided a de facto RESA. But the plane travelled about 150 metres beyond that, coming to rest in a ravine and catching fire. The TSB ruled that final bit of rough terrain largely contributed to a dozen people being seriously injured and the plane's destruction.

A similar 1978 crash of an Air Canada DC-9 on a neighbouring runway during takeoff killed two people and seriously injured 47 others. A corner's inquest recommended a 300-metre RESA.

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