Time for government to fund runway safety improvements

photo (2)There are still several issues left outstanding in the wake of my Toronto Star story of Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. (“Watchdog warns of risky runways“)

Transport Canada declined to answer several of the questions I posed to them regarding runway overruns and the steps they’re taking to bring Canada into compliance with ICAO standards. Among the questions left unanswered:

  1. Why, in Transport Canada’s view, runways overruns have not decreased since 2010.
  2. Why it was taking so long to introduce changes to policy.
  3. Transport Canada said it is “collaborating with industry stakeholders to discuss approaches to RESA at Canadian airports,” however it declined to say what the status was of those collaborations.
  4. If it was within Transport Canada’s authority to simply mandate that airports install ICAO-standard runway end safety area (RESA).

In the absence of answers, it’s worth speculation and discussion.

I exchanged some observations with an airport operator over the weekend and he pointed out that there is resistance at airports to install runway end safety areas and engineered material arresting systems (EMAS) because of lack of space and cost. Understandable.

No doubt this is behind the delays in implementing change in policy. The conundrum faced by Transport Canada is how to achieve compliance without downloading financial hardship on airports. If a given airport were unable to comply due to lack of money and was forced to close because it was not in compliance, the outrage from people and communities who depend on that airport would no doubt be considerable — and the government would feel the full brunt of that outrage.

In fact, I’ve read, in particular, that northern airport operators are resisting changes because they don’t have the space or the money. Just this point is made on the very good Aviation Law Blog provided by the B.C. law firm Alexander, Holburn, Beaudin & Lang LLP. They state:

“This proposal has encountered strong opposition from the Northern Air Transport Association (“NATA”), which argues the unsuitability of the proposed RESA regulations for northern airports.  NATA argues that the cost of building RESAs at some northern airports would be prohibitive, resulting in a reduction of air services to communities already receiving limited service.  NATA points out that aircraft using many northern airports land at speeds far below those of larger aircraft operating in the south.  In the north, where many runways have gravel surfaces, NATA urges that the priority for limited capital expenditures should be the paving of existing runways, not the construction of new RESAs.”

However, the airports at which improved RESA and EMAS facilities are most required are the larger airports with the most number of aircraft movements: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver prime among them. These airports primarily handle the larger aircraft which require longer runways and these airports are far better able to absorb the costs because their landing fee revenue is so much higher than smaller facilities.

What needs to happen, of course, is that the federal government, in the name of meeting the recommendations of the Transportation Safety Board, should authorize the release of funds in conjunction with Public Works in the form of infrastructure projects. Jobs would be created and public safety improved.

Transport Canada would then be free to make its runway policy changes quickly and effectively and enhanced safety would be the payoff.