Risky runways: incursions pose a threat to the flying public

  • This is one of three articles on runway incursions in Canada
  • What are the problem areas at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International? And what can be done? Answers here
  • We’ve mapped the airports with the greatest number of runway incursions here

In 2018, there were more than 450 runway incursions across Canada

The risk of collision is growing

Just before Christmas 2018, a full load of 19 passengers aboard a Beechcraft 1900C settled in for landing at Trail, British Columbia. Their Pacific Coastal Airlines flight from Vancouver was in its final stages, approaching the airport’s only runway from the north, and would soon set down in this city nestled between the Selkirk and Monashee Mountain ranges.

They couldn’t know it, but everyone on board was seconds from catastrophe.

On the ground, an employee in an airport vehicle conducted a runway inspection, seemingly unaware the plane was about to set down.

At this point, the details are not yet clear exactly what happened or why. What is clear, the landing Beechcraft touched down, and chased the vehicle some 400m down the runway. Disaster was only averted at the last second as the airport employee veered onto the airport’s only small apron, halfway down the runway, just before the plane passed the same spot.

BELOW: A map shows the path of the airplane (from top to bottom in red), and the location (in blue) where the airport vehicle veered onto the apron.

As it does in the most serious cases, the Transportation Safety Board dispatched an investigator from its office in Vancouver to figure out what went wrong in Trail. It is clear, however, that the incident can be considered a runway incursion, where a person, vehicle or plane is on or too close to a runway when it shouldn’t be, risking a collision on the ground.

While it’s too early for the TSB to come to any conclusions, TSB chair Kathy Fox said the number of runway incursions in Canada year after year means the whole system needs to be put under a microscope.

“Not only are the absolute number increasing of incursions, which is maybe partly attributed to the traffic increase,” said Fox, “but then when you do it at the rate per 100,000 movements, the rate has also increased.”

The rate of incursions rose more than 16 per cent between 2013 and 2017, from 6.6 per 100,000 takeoffs and landings, to 7.8, despite improvements such as digital maps to help pilots navigate on the ground, and surface radar to help controllers “see” the airfield.

Statistics compiled by Western Aviation News show there were more than 450 reported runway incursions in Canada in 2018. The vast majority were of little consequence, happening at small airports with student pilots making rookie mistakes. But that was not always the case.

In 2016 and 2017, there were 21 incursions in Canada considered high severity, meaning there was a serious risk of collision, injuries, and death. And a review of the data suggests 2018 was no different.

Runway incursions pose one of the greatest safety risks to airport operations

Statistically speaking, flying is consistently one of the safest forms of travel. Tight regulation, technology and training have combined to reduce mishaps and save lives. But the speed and size of aircraft make the consequences of even a single collision catastrophic.

In 1977, a runway incursion led to the worst aviation collision the world had ever seen. In Tenerife, Canary Islands, a departing KLM 747 slammed into a Pan Am 747 before it could clear the runway. Five hundred and eighty-three people were killed.

The very next year, disaster struck closer to home. Forty-two people died in Cranbrook, B.C, when a Pacific Western 737 crashed after its thrust reversers would not stow as it tried to abort a landing to avoid hitting a snowplow on the runway. Fortunately, that was the last disaster due to a runway incursion in Canada.

Each incident has taught the aviation world valuable lessons, particularly about the need for clear communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.

NAV CANADA, which provides the nation’s air traffic control services, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. On its website, the agency downplays the risk posed by incursions. “Runway incursions are rare in Canada. With some five and a half million movements per year at airports with NAV CANADA control or advisory services, the number of runway incursions is about 350, a fraction of one per cent or about 1 in 16,000 movements.”

The agency has worked with airlines and airports to try to reduce the risk, and in 2018 released its first-ever Ground Traffic Phraseology Guide, an attempt to standardize the language between control towers and crews operating on the airfield. The guide includes a list of words and phrases that pilots, controllers and airport operations staff should use to avoid any confusion.

“Communications are an important contributing factor to safety and many incidents and occurrences cite communication as a primary cause,” reads the guide. “It is easy to forget that the voice on the other end of the radio is a person too. If everyone begins with the same foundation of standard phraseology, there is less room for error or misinterpretation.”

“It only takes one. One bad one to have a Tenerife or a Cranbrook… where there’s a catastrophic accident.”

Kathy Fox, Chair, Transportation Safety Board

Canada is not alone facing the risk of runway incursions. The International Civil Aviation Organization last updated its action plan against runway incursions in 2017, warning “although the [number of] runway incursion accidents reported between the period of 2008 to 2016 is very low, the number of runway incursion incidents remains high.”

The ICAO found that runway incursions are most likely to happen during the day in nice weather. Accidents, however, are more likely to happen during low visibility and at night. The agency advises that each incursion should be reported and analyzed, regardless of whether an aircraft was present.

The causes are well known and have varied little over the years.

“It can be a miscommunication, a misunderstanding between pilots in a specific aircraft, or between the crew and the traffic control tower,” said the TSB’s Kathy Fox. “Sometimes it can be distraction because of other duties they’re performing in the cockpit. Sometimes it’s a lack of familiarity with the airport… and it’s usually never just one.”

Airport design and procedures also play a role, and the problem is exacerbated when facilities operate at or near capacity.

Lasting solutions are proving stubbornly elusive. NAV CANADA chairs the Runway Safety and Incursion Prevention Panel which meets twice a year to make recommendations on runway safety. Panel member the Air Transport Association of Canada – which represents a number of Canada’s smaller airlines – says the issue is “not anywhere near the top of (our) list of concerns,” though they are monitoring the problem.

At the busiest airports, NAV CANADA has warning systems to alert controllers of impeding threats. But it can take time to communicate the information to the ground and be acted on in the right way. Fox wants to see the country’s busiest airports adopt automatic warnings that are sent directly to pilots to speed the process.

“We do realize that there’s a lot of work being done with respect to [air transportation system] procedures, signage at airports, outreach activities with industry etc. to try and get a handle on this. The one thing that we would like to see, and that’s why it continues to be on our Watchlist, is some technological solutions, such as direct-to-pilot warnings.

“There is airborne collision avoidance, so why can’t we have it on the ground?”

The TSB would like to see Canada’s busiest airports – such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary – install a system of runway status lights that alert pilots to impending dangers. They act almost like traffic lights on an airfield.

Such systems have already been installed in the United States at mega-hubs in Dallas-Ft. Worth and Los Angeles. Twenty more are planned at a cost of millions of dollars each, and the Federal Aviation Administration foots most of the bill. In Canada, it’s not clear who would pay.

Red runway status lights warn a plane lined up for takeoff in Los Angeles of a vehicle crossing ahead (photo: FAA).

“There has not been a runway incursion accident since the 70s,” said Kathy Fox of the TSB. “So on the one hand you could say ‘well, it’s not a huge risk if you look at the probabilities,’ but it’s the consequences if there is on that makes it a high risk. Because if two aircraft hit, then that’s catastrophic.

“I fly regularly commercially, and I still fly privately and I’m not unduly concerned when I get on an airplane, but it’s something that as Chair of the TSB I think more could be done, more should be done, and we’re going to keep pushing until more is done.”