Toronto’s runway incursion risks

  • This is one of three articles in a special investigation into runway incursions in Canada by Western Aviation News
  • See the main article about the situation across Canada here
  • See a map of where incursions happen across Canada here
The Transportation Safety Board is conducting a special investigation into the complex maze of runways and taxiways on the south side of Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport (photo: GTAA).

Every day, more than 1,100 planes take off and land at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport, whisking passengers to the four corners of the globe. Keeping all that traffic operating smoothly is a monumental task, akin to a traffic officer keeping several lanes of traffic moving at a busy downtown intersection, but in three dimensions, and travelling in any number of directions.

Since 2010, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board has investigated at least 10 runway incursions at Toronto that were serious enough to pose a safety hazard. To get at the underlying causes, the TSB launched what’s called a safety issues investigation, focusing particularly on Pearson’s complex web of parallel runways and taxiways on the south side of the airport. The investigation has been completed, and results are expected to be released in early 2019.

Western Aviation News mapped the most serious reported runway incursions of 2017 and 2018 at Pearson, and a disturbing picture emerged:

  • The most common risk happened when planes arriving on runway 06R/24L had to cross the adjacent runway to reach the terminals
  • In one case this year, a landing passenger plane ventured onto a runway as a corporate jet took off just overhead
  • Experienced pilots were frequently distracted, didn’t hear or misunderstand instructions, or got lost
  • There was significant confusion in a north-east sector of the airport, where there was a cluster of incursions
MAP: Each point on the map below indicates a reported runway incursion at Pearson International Airport. Points in blue represent incursions in 2018. Points in orange indicate incidents in 2017. Click on each marker to read details of what happened.

The TSB has finished collecting the data in Toronto and is set to release its results in the coming weeks. While TSB chair Kathy Fox was not prepared to reveal the inquiry’s conclusions, she did say the board took the unusual step of alerting regional carriers based in the United States of the dangers they face on the ground in Toronto.

“We’re not waiting until we issue a report. We did issue an interim communiqué to warn pilots – particularly regional U.S. carriers where there seems to be a bigger … ongoing issue with runway incursions – and that was to tide us over until our final report.”

That warning had its desired effect. While U.S. regional carriers were involved in five incursions in 2017, there was only one in 2018.

The map below shows incursions by U.S. regional carriers at Pearson on runways 06R/24L and 06L/24R. Five incidents (in blue) were reported in 2017. In 2018, there was only one (in orange). Click on the markers to read details of the incursion.

Pearson is Air Canada’s hub, so its pilots are intimately aware of the problem. The Air Canada Pilots Association said in an e-mail “Runway incursions can occur for a variety of reasons, including: noncompliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards, multiple operating airlines, language proficiencies, ground operations, geography, and experience levels of crew and staff.

“Airports which have been successful in reducing incursions are those which are proactive about addressing the problem, adopting standards set by ICAO and creating Local Runway Safety Teams, which meet on a regular basis to discuss best practices.”

The TSB said the rising rate of incursions highlights the need for more action to help pilots realize they’re headed for trouble. At complex airports, such as Toronto, runway status lights – think of them as traffic lights for aircraft – would go along way to reducing the risk.

WATCH: The French Ministry of Transportation explains how Runway Status Lights work at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport (in English).

When contacted for comment, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, which runs Pearson, declined to comment, citing the TSB investigation.

“We are cooperating with the Transportation Safety Board in their investigation,” said spokesperson Maria Ganogiannis in an e-mail. “We will have more to share once the investigation is complete.”

Neither Transport Canada nor NAV CANADA, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment, has so far recognized the need for urgent action to install runway status lights in this country. And the TSB worries until the need is taken seriously, the risk of high-speed collisions on airfields will remain a threat to the millions of people who fly through Toronto every year.