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- Date: 23 Jun 2006 20:24:33 -0700
Jun. 3, 2006. 02:19 PM
ROBERT CRIBB, FRED VALLANCE-JONES AND TAMSIN MCMAHON
TORSTAR NEWS SERVICE
More than 80,000 passengers have been put at risk over the last five
years when airplanes they were travelling in came dangerously close
together in Canadian skies, according to never-before-released federal
Between 2001 and mid-2005, there were more than 800 incidents in which
planes got too close to each other, according to Transport Canada data
- about one incident every two days. Sometimes, they come within
seconds of crashing.
This is one of the major findings in a joint investigation of the
Canadian commercial airline industry by the Toronto Star, the Hamilton
Spectator and The Record of Waterloo Region.
The investigation found a safety system straining at the seams. Experts
- pilots, mechanics, airline workers and people who study aviation
data - warn significant changes must be made to prevent a major
Among other findings:
About twice a day in Canada, pilots or air traffic controllers make
mistakes that could cause accidents, including putting two planes on
the same runway at the same time, navigational errors, changing
altitudes without permission or making unsafe takeoffs and landings.
Mechanical malfunctions, from engine fires to parts falling off in
mid-flight, have risen steadily from 2000 to 2004.
Smaller aircraft, including planes, gliders and helicopters, are also
involved in "near misses," both with other small planes and commercial
airplanes heading in and out of increasingly crowded airspace above
"There will be a serious accident. It's just a matter of time," warns
veteran aviator Ken Green, who retired in March after a 33-year career
as a commercial airline pilot with Air Canada. His concerns are echoed
by other aviation experts.
Transport Canada data show a steady increase in the number of alleged
violations of Canadian aviation regulations such as improper
maintenance checks and pilots taking off or landing without air traffic
control authorization. The regulator, which has the power to discipline
pilots, airlines and air traffic controllers under the Canadian
Aviation Regulations, recorded 1,251 alleged breaches in 2004 alone, up
79 per cent from 2001.
It all comes against a backdrop of worsening safety statistics.
According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, the number of
fatal aircraft accidents was up 48 per cent between 2004 and 2005, from
27 to 40. It was the largest number of fatal crashes since 2001 and
resulted in 61 deaths.
Eight of those deaths were the result of six accidents in the air taxi
industry, which uses small planes. That's double the number of fatal
accidents in 2004 and the most since 1998. In all, the accident rate
for Canadian aircraft - planes, helicopters and gliders - increased
3 per cent between 2004 and 2005.
Cost cutting, human fatigue and poor morale are key factors that
threaten safety in the skies, according to dozens of pilots, air
traffic controllers and mechanics interviewed.
With air traffic predicted to double over the next decade, it amounts
to a perfect storm.
Merlin Preuss, head of civil aviation with Transport Canada, says
Canadians have one of the safest aviation systems in the world. But
increasingly crowded skies do pose a safety challenge, he says.
"The amount of (air) traffic is increasing which can lead to more
incidents being reported," he says.
"One of our fears is if we continue to be successful just at this level
and our (traffic) goes up, there will be more front-page stories about
where the system has failed."
Transport Canada's strategy for addressing a potential spike in
accidents is a controversial new approach that will hand over many
safety-monitoring duties to airlines. Critics call it a mistake that
will allow for-profit companies to self-regulate.
The airspace over Canada is massive, but so is the complexity in
managing it. There are about 6,000 airports or landing facilities
across Canada, including 1,300 operating under licences from Transport
Canada. Of these, 42 operate with air traffic control towers -
including all major Canadian cities - and 64 others, like those in
Timmins and North Bay, have flight service stations that provide
weather and advisory services.
Towered airports take most of the 60-million-plus passengers and last
year handled a total of 4.3 million takeoffs and landings - down
about 1 million from the industry's peak in 1999, but on the way up as
the airlines recovered from 9/11 and later, SARS.
In congested skies, there's little room for error. For example, two
commercial jets separated by four nautical miles and on a collision
course would strike each other in less than 20 seconds.
In one recent incident, two planes heading for Toronto in January -
an Air Canada Jazz passenger jet and a Thunder Airlines turboprop -
came close to colliding because the Jazz crew had improperly set the
plane's altimeter and the pilots thought they were higher than they
actually were. The larger Jazz jet was descending and came close to
crashing down on the smaller Thunder Airlines plane. A proximity
warning alarm sounded and the Jazz jet pulled up just in time.
Like most of these incidents, the 100 passengers on the two planes were
unaware of the close call, called a "loss of separation." The incident
report shows the planes came within 200 feet (60 metres) of each other
- a thin whisker in aviation terms.
Planes are required to maintain "separation" from other aircraft in
busy airspace, either vertically or horizontally. Vertical separation
is typically 1,000 feet (305 metres). How far apart planes must be
horizontally depends on where the airplane is in its trip. Near busy
airports, planes may be allowed as close as three nautical miles (5.5
kilometres) apart. Farther along the flight path, five miles is
typical, but in remote rural or ocean areas where there is no radar
coverage, the bubble of protected airspace around a plane may be
measured in dozens of miles.
Canadian aviation rules - set by Transport Canada - allow thousands
of planes to fly without a proximity-warning device like the kind that
saved the day in the Jazz-Thunder Airlines incident.
For 10 years, Transport Canada has studied making the Traffic Collision
Avoidance System (TCAS) mandatory. In the U.S., TCAS systems are
required for planes with more than 10 passengers, while in the European
Union the minimum is 20 passengers. It's only those foreign regulations
that force Canadian planes flying into those countries to have the
`LOSS OF SEPARATION'
When close calls between planes do happen, they are rarely
investigated. The Transportation Safety Board, Canada's federal agency
responsible for studying air safety mishaps, is a lean operation, able
to investigate about 50 aviation incidents and accidents a year from
the thousands that take place.
Since 1996, for example, there have been 1,619 incidents classified by
the TSB as "risk of collision" or "loss of separation" involving
commercial aircraft. Of those, 95 per cent received only cursory
review. Only 79 triggered more thorough investigations - fewer than
one in 20.
The TSB has been aware of this problem for years. A "safety advisory"
written by the board in 2000 warned that "losses of separation do
occur, many of which involve risks of collision."
"Current and proposed defences against this threat are not adequate,"
it stated. "Although the probability of a mid-air collision is very
low, the associated consequences are high."
Nav Canada, the private company that manages the country's air traffic
control towers, exists to accomplish one primary task: Keep planes from
coming anywhere near each other.
When planes do breach the protective distances set by Canadian aviation
safety rules, officials log the incident as a "loss of separation."
Nav Canada figures show 78 losses of separation and another 279
potential losses of separation involving air traffic controllers last
year, the highest total in the last five years. The company says the
growth is partly explained by more reporting of minor incidents.
Many losses of separation involve small aircraft - including
thousands of small planes, gliders and helicopters flying out of rural
airports, flight schools or airstrips - that come into conflict with
commercial airplanes. Such incidents happen with surprising frequency
in Canadian skies and historically more often in the busy summer
The pilot of a WestJet 737 flight heading into Hamilton from Winnipeg
experienced four "near misses with light aircraft" that required
"aggressive manoeuvring to avoid a collision," reads a July 2003
Those light aircraft are believed to be gliders from the Southern
Ontario Soaring Association, a gliding club with 150 members based in
Rockton, between Hamilton and Kitchener.
The near miss occurred in lightly controlled airspace where gliders and
small private planes are allowed to fly without transponders - which
send out a signal that alerts larger planes of other aircraft - and
all pilots are responsible for keeping an eye out for other planes.
But the airspace, up to 12,500 feet, is also on the landing and takeoff
path for Pearson and Hamilton international airports, which means jets
regularly fly low near the glider club.
Club president Dave Springford said commercial airline pilots, trained
to fly using sophisticated navigational instruments, don't always
respect the rights of smaller planes when flying at low altitudes.
Last year, pilots of an Air Canada Jazz flight from Toronto to London,
Ont., faced a similar moment of terror when the flight crew reported
passing "within 500 feet of a glider."
"Nothing had been seen on radar," the incident report says.
Last July, a CanJet Boeing 737 from Montreal was 12 nautical miles from
the runway in Ottawa when the flight crew "looked out and saw a Cessna
172 off the aircraft's left wing, about 100 feet above them," an
incident report says.
Nav Canada says the Cessna pilot was allowed in that airspace, but was
breaking the rules because he was not in radio contact with the Ottawa
tower and had no transponder.
Without a transponder, the Cessna was invisible to the CanJet plane's
collision avoidance system, and nearly invisible to controllers. Only a
last-minute warning from controllers, and luck, saved the day.
Breaches of separation between large planes are particularly dangerous
in the airspace around airports.
In the Jazz-Thunder Air near miss, even after the planes' emergency
alarm systems prompted the pilots to change course, the danger wasn't
over, according to the incident report. The Jazz plane resumed its
descent into Toronto only 1.5 nautical miles ahead of the Thunder
Airlines plane - far less than the four nautical miles required by
aviation safety regulations.
Ken Bittle, president and chief safety officer with Thunder Airlines,
says his pilot was never aware of how close he was to another plane.
"(It was) very close. That's not comfortable at all and in that
particular phase of flight, with this aircraft coming from behind and
above and descending is the worst possible case. You would never, ever
That's because gazing out of a cockpit window, a pilot can't see below
or directly above.
"With a car you have, more or less, a level playing field. There is a
car, sometimes it's coming at you or beside you or behind you, you're
not looking up or down for it. With an airplane you have all these
directions, plus you have the vertical separation."
Neither Air Canada Jazz nor Air Canada would answer questions on
incidents involving their planes. WestJet, also approached for this
series, would not comment on specifics.
`There are serious problems which will eventually rear their ugly head
and result in tragedies'
Brian Alexander, pilot and aviation lawyer
Controller errors can involve even higher stakes because they often
involve large commercial airliners filled with people.
Last August, controllers inadvertently put an Air Canada 767 arriving
from Rome on a conflicting course with an Air Canada Jazz regional jet
departing Toronto. The planes came within three-quarters of a nautical
mile of each other at the same altitude.
Both crews received alerts from their onboard collision avoidance
systems. The 767 pilot descended at the last moment to avoid the Jazz
Last April, a Canadair Regional Jet operated by U.S.-based Pinnacle
Airlines was on approach into Toronto from Memphis at the same time as
an Air Canada Airbus flight 449 was landing in Toronto from Ottawa.
As the two planes descended onto runway 24R at Pearson International
Airport at the same time, they came within 500 feet vertically and 1.5
miles laterally of one another before landing safely, an incident
report states. That's well below the required distance to ensure
Pearson's runway 24R was the site of another close call in 2003 when an
Air Canada Boeing 767 was taking off just as another Air Canada Boeing
767 was departing from runway 23.
"The Toronto departure controller momentarily confused the two aircraft
call-signs," reads the incident report. "The two aircraft were placed
on converging flight paths."
The controller quickly ordered the two planes on diverging paths.
But not before the plane on 24R came within 1.5 nautical miles to the
south and 600 feet below the other Boeing plane.
THE TECHNOLOGY GAP
Loss of separation incidents demonstrate one of the ways the air safety
system is most vulnerable: It relies on everyone - from commercial
and weekend pilots to air traffic controllers - following a complex
set of rules, which vary by airport and are laid out in a 400-page
manual and a thick book of charts. And pilots of smaller planes often
don't have the same skills or experience as big jet pilots.
Capt. Michael Zorychta, CanJet's director of flight operations, said
he'd like to see tougher regulation of amateur pilots to ensure their
knowledge and skills are current.
"They shouldn't be there in the first place," he says. "You get a lot
of professional people ... (that have) the wherewithal to afford to
either own or rent (a plane) and they don't do it for a living and they
are less vigilant, let's say, than the professional pilots."
One solution would be to ban smaller planes from larger airport
airspace altogether, as is the case at Heathrow airport in London.
Zorychta suggests that solution could be implemented around Pearson.
Either way, he would like to see every plane, no matter how small,
equipped with a Traffic Collision Avoidance System - technology that
trips a cockpit alarm when planes come too close together.
"It seems like a no-brainer," he says. Still, Canada doesn't require
TCAS at all, despite calls from pilots, air traffic controllers and the
TSB dating back at least a decade.
Most large commercial aircraft in Canada are equipped with the
life-saving systems because they need it to fly over the U.S., where
TCAS has been mandatory for 13 years. But many smaller planes in Canada
running on domestic-only routes remain unequipped.
Jennifer Taylor, Transport Canada's director of aerodromes and air
navigation, says the agency is working toward TCAS regulations in the
near future. She says the long delay in getting there is the result of
differing air traffic levels than the U.S. and a lengthy approval
process in Canada.
"We don't have that same kind of accident risk as they do in the States
(because) we don't have the same volume (of traffic)," she says. "And
there are protocols and rules imposed on us ... and the first principle
is that you should not be able to make rules that are going to impose a
restriction on people's activities easily. You should not be able to do
that quickly. It should require lots of research, lots of assessment,
lots of consultation."
It's an argument that falls flat with most pilots.
"Why would you not put this on an airplane?" asks Capt. Bob Perkins, a
33-year veteran commercial pilot and national safety committee chair
with the Airline Pilots Association, which represents 63,000 pilots at
40 airlines in Canada and the U.S.
"It does cost a little bit of money, but it can potentially save the
airplane and whoever is on it. It's a no-brainer."
The TCAS system required for large commercial planes (more than 30
seats) in U.S. and European airspace costs about $250,000 (U.S.), while
TCAS for smaller planes cost between $29,000 and $79,500 depending on
the size of the aircraft. Most small aircraft that don't require TCAS
need at least a transponder, which costs about $1,800.
Money is an increasingly big factor in aviation safety, say many
long-time aviation professionals. Grant Corriveau, who retired as an
Air Canada pilot two years ago, has seen budgetary belt-tightening
change the way pilots fly during his 30-year career.
"Something goes from an amber condition to a red condition a lot faster
than it used to because the buffers are smaller," he says.
For example, commercial planes carry much less fuel today than ever
before to reduce costs. But it means that when a flight doesn't go as
planned and landing is delayed, pilots have much less time to react
before the fuel runs out.
In one 2003 incident, a Convair 580 aircraft heading to New Zealand
became lost as a result of a navigational error. By the time it
eventually landed, the plane was down to its last 359 pounds of fuel
- enough for only a few minutes of flight time, according to a TSB
"All the new bells and whistles are continually pushed to the limit in
order to become more profitable and to squeeze more airplanes into more
airspace and then when something goes wrong, you have less outs and
less room to manoeuvre," says Corriveau.
Perhaps the greatest safety measure working in favour of travellers is
the fact that the sky is a big place. Even when navigational mistakes
happen, the likelihood of an accident remains small.
But experts say the odds grow along with air traffic. Brian Alexander,
a pilot and lawyer with New York-based Kreindler & Kreindler, among the
largest international aviation law firms which has handled air disaster
cases including Lockerbie, SwissAir and 9/11, says there are mounting
concerns about safety in the air.
"There are parts of the system that are working well and are improving
as technology improves. Having said that, it is absolutely true to be
sure that there are serious problems which will eventually rear their
ugly head and result in tragedies and we'll have all the Monday morning
quarterbacks talking about, `Well, we knew that but we didn't fix it.'"
The single biggest concern, which Alexander calls a "crisis," is an
expected dramatic growth in air travellers over the next decade that
promises to surpass the system's ability to ensure safety.
"The overall airspace system is not presently prepared for what is an
inevitable increase in air traffic and travellers over the next five to
10 years," he says.
One estimate, cited by Transport Canada officials, is a doubling of
accidents by 2015 as air traffic experiences dramatic growth with Asian
routes and a general increase in flying.
"We have a lot of occurrences like you see in the reporting incident
data," says Capt. Brian Boucher, an Air Canada pilot and technical
safety chair of the Air Canada Pilots Association. "What we have now
isn't working safely. We might get by and not have anything for two or
three years. But are we doing the right thing? We want to do what's in
the best interests of the travelling public."
THE HUMAN FACTOR
With Canada's privatized air traffic control structure and airlines
struggling for economic viability, concerns about safety are
increasingly subjected to cost pressures, say unions for pilots and air
Those pressures, they say, result in overwork, fatigue and, ultimately,
Robert Thurgur, president of the Canadian Air Traffic Control
Association, says chronic short staffing in the nation's control towers
has compromised the delicate work of managing planes in the sky.
"I think there's a very strong influence on costs. It's not as safe a
system as if safety came first and costs came a distant second," he
says. "Anytime you've got people that are working excessive amounts of
overtime in a complex environment with distractions, you are increasing
the likelihood of incidents."
Many control towers across the country are not happy workplaces, says
"There's a lot of frustration with Nav Canada and the way the system is
being run. ... Our employee surveys show controllers are disengaged and
unhappy. There's a feeling that senior management isn't living up to
the commitment and philosophies of the company."
Officials with Nav Canada admit there is understaffing in some of its
facilities while others are overstaffed thanks to union rules that
limit the ability to move controllers from one facility to another.
Nav Canada investigates about 200 incidents a year involving
controllers, says Kathy Fox, the company's vice-president of
operations. In many cases, those investigations lead to "retraining"
courses, generally lasting about a day.
In very rare cases, controllers will be ordered to take lengthier
retraining or be removed from their positions and reassigned, she says.
A controller in Moncton was ordered to take a one-day retraining course
following an August 2004 incident in which an Air Georgian pilot was
forced to take "evasive action" after coming within 700 feet and a half
mile from a WestJet B737 on an approach into Halifax.
A controller responsible for monitoring the Air Georgian plane failed
to make sure the pilot had sight of the WestJet flight, says Fox.
"That allowed the spacing to erode to less than (mandatory) separation.
.... (But) they were not on a collision course."
She says the controller was given a one-day retraining course to ensure
"his work habits were correct" and a clarification was issued to all
staff in the centre on proper procedures.
Many pilots seem as frazzled as controllers - with a workload they
say contributes to human error.
Retired Air Canada pilot Ken Green filed several complaints with the
airline over the past couple of years warning that fatigue is leaving
pilots more prone to making mistakes.
Says Green: "I'm a passenger sitting behind these (pilots) now and I
don't even want to use my (flight) passes because I'm almost scared to
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