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It's time for concrete action on transportation safety

By Wendy A. Tadros,
Chair, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article was published in the 08 April 2013 issue of the Hill Times.

At the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), we've spent over two decades at the forefront of accident investigation. Whether our experts are sifting through wreckage to put together the pieces of a shattered airliner, or computer modeling flight paths based on data from the flight recorders, their goal is always the same: to advance transportation safety by uncovering safety lessons, and then communicating those lessons for the benefit of Canadians.

Three years ago, we introduced our inaugural safety Watchlist, which identified the greatest risks to Canada's transportation system. That list broke new ground, and helped us shine a spotlight on the toughest issues, the ones that had proven most difficult to solve. We used the Watchlist as a blueprint for change, and when we urged government and industry to work together, they made real progress.

For a while, anyway.

Part of the problem lies with the issues themselves: if they weren't hard to solve, they wouldn't have made it onto the Watchlist. And the issues that remained after we updated the Watchlist in 2012 are some of the hardest of all. But that's only part of the explanation, and the irony is that, for many of these issues, we know exactly what solutions are needed.

Last month, the TSB released its report into a 2011 accident involving a Cessna Caravan that crashed near Lutsel K'e, Northwest Territories, killing two of the four people aboard. The aircraft, en route from Yellowknife, was flying at low altitude, and when it entered an area of low visibility investigators believe the pilot was unable to see and avoid the Pehtei Peninsula, which rises some 500 feet from the surface of Great Slave Lake. The industry term for this type of accident is CFIT—controlled flight into terrain—and it's the same thing that happened two months earlier, when a Boeing 737 slammed into a hill barely a mile from the airport at Resolute Bay, Nunavut, killing 12 of the 15 people on board.

The story, however, doesn't end there.

On March 11 of this year, an unmanned maintenance van rolled onto Runway 24R at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, where it narrowly missed a twin-engine Embraer 190 that was preparing to land. This "runway incursion," one of hundreds that are reported each year at Canadian airports, was frightening not only for its severity—the plane passed mere metres above the van—but because barely a week later, something similar happened again, when a Boeing 727 nearly collided with two snowplows during takeoff at Hamilton International Airport.

That too, isn't everything.

On March 14, the TSB released its report into a 2012 runway overrun at the airport in Timmins, Ontario. The occurrence, which caused no injuries to the three people on board but substantial damage to the aircraft, was just one of a rash of overruns that have plagued Canadian airports—39 in the past three years, including ones in Ottawa, Moncton, and St. John's.

CFITs, runway overruns and incursions: these are just a few of the issues on our Watchlist. And for each of them, the TSB has talked repeatedly about what needs to be done to improve safety—and by extension save lives. Yet, too often, we end up having the same conversations again and again. Because when it comes to implementation, progress can easily get bogged down in layer upon layer of "consultation" and "process"—leaving the regulatory system so slow it's almost broken.

Now is the time for Transport Canada to take concrete action. It's also time for industry and operators to step up and find solutions on their own. That means being proactive and adopting stricter safety measures—and no longer waiting for government to eventually legislate what best practices should be implemented.

That means companies need to improve approach procedures and make increased use of technology, particularly in smaller aircraft, to help prevent CFITs. It also means airports need to install longer runway end safety areas, and give pilots timely information about surface conditions, especially in bad weather, to help reduce the frequency and severity of runway overruns. And preventing incursions can better be done through enhanced collision warning systems, and measures such as direct-to-pilot warnings.

No one, of course, ever said any of this would be easy. What we have said is that it will make Canada safer, and that it will save lives. And isn't that enough?

The TSB is an independent agency that investigates marine, pipeline, railway and aviation transportation occurrences. Its sole aim is the advancement of transportation safety. It is not the function of the Board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability.