OTTAWA — The head of Canada's Transportation Safety Board chastised the federal government Thursday for the "troubling" lack of progress in improving aviation safety.
The independent agency's latest watchlist, released Thursday, highlights progress in marine and rail safety, but singles out problems in resolving key safety issues for air travellers, including one flagged 16 year ago.
"We've seen some moderate progress on marine and rail safety issues. However, the lack of progress in aviation is what I would call troubling," board chairwoman Wendy Tadros said.
They include unfulfilled recommendations to reduce the risk of landing accidents and aircraft overruns at Canada's major airports, to improve data and voice recorders on aircraft, and to require smaller aircraft to install special equipment to help prevent collisions with land or water while under crew control.
"The reasons that these issues are on the watchlist is that they were the accidents we were seeing time and again and were systematic in the system," said Tadros.
"We would hope that when you have a recommendation that's coming out of a solid, scientific investigation — and (in) most of these situations, Transport Canada and the minister agree with what the board is saying — it's just taking way too long," Tadros.
For example, the independent body charged with investigating crashes first flagged in 1995 the need for regulations requiring ground-proximity awareness equipment on smaller aircraft.
Collisions with land and water account for five per of accidents but nearly 25 per cent of all fatalities in Canada, and between 2000 and 2009, there were 129 accidents of this type, resulting in 128 fatalities, according to the safety board.
Concerns around landing accidents and runway overruns were laid out in 2007, when the board tabled six key recommendations following an incident in August 2005. An Air France flight from Paris overshot the runway at Toronto's international airport in stormy weather, and the aircraft stopped in a nearby ravine and caught fire. All 309 aboard survived, with 12 sustaining serious injuries.
In addition to unfulfilled training recommendations, Transport Canada has also yet to require all Code 4 runways used by large aircraft to have a 300-metre safety area or buffer zone at the end of the runway, in compliance with international standards.
In a recent 10-year period, there were 3,821 runway incursions, the report notes. Given the millions of takeoff and landings each year, incursions are "rare" but the "consequences can be catastrophic," the watchlist report says.
Meanwhile, the safety board's call for better data and voice recorders on aircraft date back to the devastating 1998 Swiss Air crash off the coast of Peggy's Cove in Nova Scotia.
All 229 aboard the Geneva-bound flight from New York died. The board set January 2005 as the date for Transport Canada to require upgrading recording capacity in aircraft. After all these years, Transport Canada's response has been downgraded to unsatisfactory.
"We're behind on both runway incursions and runway overruns. We're behind on controlled flight into terrain and we're behind on data recorders," said Tadros, noting the United States has done more than Canada.
In a statement, Transport Minister Denis Lebel defended his department's progress on implementing the board's key safety recommendations.
"We take these safety recommendations very seriously, and I have instructed my department to accelerate the necessary work with stakeholders, so that we continue our success in addressing the recommendations."
Lebel cited work being undertaken to reduce the risk of landing accidents and runway overruns, including reviewing regulations to provide additional visual aids to help pilots assess landing distances. Transport Canada has also begun a risk assessment to determine the safety effectiveness of increasing runway end safety areas to 300 metres, he said.
Pending the results of the assessment, the department could propose a regulatory amendment at the September meeting of the Canadian Aviation Regulation Advisory Council, Lebel said.
At the end of the day, Tadros said consumers should remember that "if you look at the statistics in Canada, we have a fundamentally safe system, but a number of these recommendations have been outstanding for many, many years, and if they are implemented, then I think we will see a safer system still."
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