Collisions are usually averted with the help of air traffic control — but runway mishaps remain the leading cause of death in aviation worldwide.
Such a near-collision occurred at Toronto’s Pearson airport on Nov. 18, after an American Eagle commuter plane from Chicago had just landed and was driving down a taxiway.
An air traffic controller in a nearby tower instructed the plane’s pilots to “hold short” on the taxiway. An American Eagle pilot acknowledged the command to stop.
But for reasons that remain unclear, the plane continued to roll down the taxiway toward the edge of an active runway where an Air Canada Airbus A319 was accelerating for takeoff.
“Eagle 4125, STOP! STOP! STOP!” the tower controller called out, and the plane came to a halt at the edge of the runway, narrowly avoiding disaster.
Transportation Safety Board investigator Don Enns estimated the Air Canada plane was about 600 metres away from the American Eagle plane when it first took off from the ground. A witness saying there was less than 10 metres between the planes as the Airbus passed over top.
“We take these (types of incidents) very seriously,” said Enns, adding that he sent two staff to the runway that night to begin the investigation.
There were 3,831 runway incursions at Canadian airports between 1999 and 2008. In the past few years, numbers have remained high. From October 2010 through September 2011, there were 367 incursions on Canadian runways.
Most do not result in disaster — but the potential for catastrophe from incursions is high, given their frequency.
The worst runway incursion in aviation history remains the Tenerife disaster in 1977 when two Boeing 747’s collided at Los Rodeos Airport in the Canary Islands, resulting in 583 deaths.
In 2001, the International Civil Aviation Organization identified runway incursions as a major safety issue and made recommendations to improve aerodromes — the space where planes land, taxi and take off.
Since then, progress has been made to reduce the frequency of runway incursions. A number of airports worldwide have installed status light systems and stop bars in low-visibility areas on runways to reduce the chance of collision.
But runway incursions continue to occur in Canada and abroad for a number of reasons — confusion with runway layout, pilot fatigue, low runway visibility, poor communication with air traffic control and bad weather among them.
Captain Barry Wiszniowski, the chair of Air Canada Pilots Association’s flight safety division, said he was troubled by news of the Nov. 18 near-collision.
“It’s an extremely concerning event,” he said. “Hopefully fatigue was not a factor. It is something we are trying to address.”
The Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing American Eagle pilots, could not be reached for comment.
American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said the company launched an “internal investigation” following the incident and planned to cooperate fully with the TSB investigation.
She would not comment on whether the American Eagle pilots involved will face disciplinary action if found at fault.
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said his company understood that their crews “were doing what they were supposed to do” when the incursion happened.
The TSB investigation into the incident remains open.
“We’re trying to understand why,” said Investigator Don Enns. “There are stop lights out there. We’re talking to the (American Eagle) crew about how they were able to miss those lights.”
Enns added that incursions have happened at the same spot where the American Eagle plane jutted onto the runway — and the runway’s design could be a factor.
“It attracted our attention that this isn’t the first time,” he said.
Source: The Star, Niamh Scallan
Gravity always wins!