Feature

The problem with runways at Canada's major airports

Transport Canada wants airport runway overrun areas to be lengthened in case pilots overshoot landings, but it's only half what the Transportation Safety Board of Canada has asked for.

How much room is needed at the end of runways to keep passengers safe? Transport Canada and TSB at odds


Click on the interactive map above to see what the situation is at major airports across Canada. 


More than a decade after Air France flight 358 slid off the end of a runway and caught fire with more than 300 people on board at Toronto Pearson International Airport, there are concerns updated federal requirements won't go far enough to prevent it from happening again.

Moving at 150 km/h, the 185-tonne plane barrelled over an access road on Aug. 2, 2005, and into a ravine, where it quickly caught fire, leaving passengers scrambling to escape.

Headlines described it as a "miracle" that everyone made it off the plane alive.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada's (TSB) investigation, released in 2007, found Pearson's overrun area — called a runway end safety area, or RESA — was too short, and so the agency recommended all major Canadian airports extend those areas to a length of 300 metres.

But more than 10 years after the TSB investigation, Transport Canada is only now moving ahead with what some safety experts view as a half measure, and it appears money is the major barrier to doing more.

"RESA installations can be expensive and most affected airports would not benefit from the existing Airports Capital Assistance Program," which has funded improvement projects for regional airports since 1995, according to a Transport Canada presentation on the issue from last April, obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation.

TSB wants 300 metres mandatory

Currently, the government requires airports to have a 60-metre strip at the end of runways for overruns and recommends an additional 90 metres, for a total of a 150 metres. The same is expected at the start of runways in case planes undershoot landings.

Transport Canada plans to introduce new regulations in the fall making 150-metre RESAs mandatory and recommending an additional 150 metres, for a total of 300 metres, a spokesperson for the agency wrote in a statement. Those regulations would apply to airports with runways longer than 1,200 metres, which includes most major airports. 

The Transportation Safety Board, however, believes all 300 metres of extra space should be mandatory.

The Transport Canada documents obtained by CBC Ottawa mention northern and remote airports are especially concerned about costs and that the government would be pressured to fund construction.

"The implications of all options could be significant on many airports and will create pressures for funding to assist in implementation," the documents read.

An emergency evacuation slide (under the ladder) hangs from the wreckage of the Air France Airbus A340 at Toronto Pearson International Airport in August 2005, one day after the plane skidded off the runway and burst into flames. The ensuing investigation recommended longer overrun areas for Canadian runways. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty)

'Complicated process,' Transport Canada says

Transport Canada has been studying the issue since at least 2011 and said costs are only one factor in their decision-making.

"Amending regulations can be a complicated process," department spokesperson Annie Joannette wrote in an email.

"It requires building consensus with all major stakeholders, identifying all associated costs, risks and possible impacts, and then precisely documenting all these factors."

Transport Canada is open to continuing to work with airports to implement the standard it is recommending, she said.

Drivers watch as the Air France plane burns after running off the runway during a landing at Pearson International Airport on Aug. 2, 2005. More than 300 people escaped with their lives, some stumbling to a nearby highway to flag down passing commuters after the jet skidded off the runway and then burst into flames during a fierce thunderstorm. (Jorge Rios/Canadian Press)

TSB wants Canada to follow U.S.

Kathy Fox, chair of the Transportation Safety Board, said they're reviewing Transport Canada's new regulations and that they didn't pick their recommended 300-metre distance randomly.

"It is the standard which is in use at the major airports in the United States," she said.

In 2011, Transport Canada commissioned a study on the issue and found approximately 90 per cent of planes involved in runway overruns in Canada came to a stop within 150 metres.

But Fox said some planes do go further and it's important to leave a wide margin for safety.

"In the case of Toronto, 150 metres is not going to prevent another Air France," she said.  

Since 2010, the board has investigated 16 other crashes involving runway overruns.

New rules put forward by Transport Canada would apply to airports with runways longer than 1,200 metres.

International standard

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency that governs flight, has been calling for longer runway overrun areas since 1999. Their standard, which Canada will now be upgrading to, calls for a minimum of 150 metres and recommends 300 metres.

According to Transport Canada's documents, Canada is now one of only four of the 191 ICAO countries that has not yet increased standards.

The question is why Canadian airline passengers deserve a lower standard.- Dan Cadieux, pilot

Pilot Dan Cadieux, with the Air Canada Pilots Association, said Canada should make all 300 metres mandatory.

"The U.S. government gets it; 97 per cent of all U.S. runways meet that standard," he said. "The question is why Canadian airline passengers deserve a lower standard."

Other options 

Cadieux also points out that for airports without the physical space necessary for extended overrun areas, there are other options.

Many airports use an engineered arresting system made of crushable concrete blocks installed at the end of runways. When landing gear rolls over the crushable panels it slows planes down, preventing major emergencies.

Fox agreed that could work for any Canadian airport where space is an issue.

"That solution has been adopted in a number of U.S. airports and has been credited with a number of saves," she said.

Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport has limited space and among the shortest overrun areas for planes. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

Transport Canada's coming regulations will allow airports to use those engineered systems or to formally shorten their runways. A reduction in declared runway length would reduce an airport's declared distance, which could impact what types of planes could land there. 

Cadieux said there's no reason why airports can't go beyond Transport Canada's proposed minimum of 150 metres, and that they just need to prioritize their investments.

"It's not a question of ability to pay. It's a question of will," he said. "Protecting airline passengers in Canada should be at least as important as pampering them with nice terminals."

Some airports out in front 

Some airports made the choice to lengthen runways ahead of Transport Canada's decision to change regulations. Airports in Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa already have 300-metre overrun areas in place.

Ottawa airport spokesperson Krista Kealey said they added the extra space when they upgraded the airport's runways in 2012 and 2014.

"We took the opportunity to lead the way by making the investment in enhanced safety and building the RESAs to the international recommendation. We took safety a step further by also grooving the surfaces, which is rare in Canada," she said.

Vancouver Airport will have spent $150 million to do the upgrades for its runways by the time work is done this year. The airport's CEO, Craig Richmond, said they wanted to do more than the minimum.  

"We are doing double what will be the Canadian standard because at YVR, the safety standard is where we begin, not where we end," he said in a January speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade.

In 2011, Pearson airport budgeted $66 million to improve overrun areas, but in 2012 the work was put on hold while they waited for a decision from Transport Canada. The cost at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is expected to be substantial because land on the island is limited.

This image from the Transportation Safety Board's report shows the Air France crash scene from overhead, along with lines indicating where the runway overrun area could be extend to. (Transportation Safety Board )

True cost 

Most of the cost estimates in the Transport Canada documents are redacted, but a 2011 presentation estimated 211 Canadian airports could need upgrades. Based on the limited information airports provided, officials estimated it could cost as much as $408 million in total to upgrade Canadian airports.

It also found that between 1990 and 2010, there were 62 aircraft that went past the 60-metre minimum strip at the end of runways and benefited from additional space.

There were 1,451 people aboard those planes. Transport Canada estimated a statistical value of $10 billion in lives saved, between $1 billion and $2 billion for the planes themselves and $500 million in clean-up costs. While that review found those accidents had not resulted in a fatality, it also said the risk was there.

"The fact that we have seen so many incidents suggests that there is a possibility that a severe incident might occur in the future," the documents read.