Toronto

Pilots urged to 'remain vigilant' at Pearson after close calls on runways

Pilots are being urged to “remain vigilant at all times” when taxiing at Toronto's Pearson International Airport in the wake of several runway incursions that one pilot says could be avoided with precautions like better lighting and signage on the ground.

Pilots' association issued safety bulletin earlier this week as TSB investigates operations at airport

In a 'safety bulletin' issued Wednesday, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations notes the risk of runway incursions at Pearson International Airport, where 'several' have occurred since March. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Pilots are being urged to "remain vigilant at all times" when taxiing at Toronto's Pearson International Airport in the wake of several runway incursions that one pilot says could be avoided with precautions like better lighting and signage on the ground.

In a "safety bulletin" issued Wednesday, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations notes the risk of runway incursions at Pearson, where "several" have occurred since March of this year.

A runway incursion happens when an aircraft is in a position that it's not supposed to be, including crossing a runway when trying to get to a terminal.

The bulletin makes note of the "multiple intersecting and parallel runways supported by a complex set of controlled and uncontrolled taxiways" at Pearson.

"The airport identified 10 hotspots where risks for incursions are high, which are depicted on airport diagram pages," the bulletin says.

The bulletin also notes that airport charts show "numerous notes and cautions" about specific runways.

The bulletin concludes with a recommendation from the pilots' association that "urges all flight crews" passing through Pearson to "carefully review the airport information, remain vigilant at all times, adhere to company policies and procedures when taxiing, and request clarification of (air traffic control) instructions prior to crossing a runway during taxi operations."

TSB investigation ongoing

Last month, the Transportation Safety Board said there have been at least 25 close calls at Pearson in the last five years. The TSB opened an investigation in May into operations at the airport, and it will continue through the fall.

A separate investigation was launched after an incident at the airport on the evening of Aug. 14, when a regional United flight from Newark, N.J., crossed into an inner runway normally used for departures that the crew was told to stay away from. At the same time, an Air Canada flight was departing from that inner runway.

Last month, the GTAA said it is "fully co-operating" with the TSB's review.

In June 2012, the GTAA completed its own probe into runway incursions at the south complex of the airport. It found 40 "occurrences of interest" between 2004 and the end of 2011, and 20 of them were inner runway incursions.

As a result, the GTAA implemented a "runway incursion plan" in 2013 that included lighting, markings and signage improvements, and additional information for flight crews "to support situational awareness," the TSB said last month.

Warning to pilots 'unusual'

Jock Williams, a commercial pilot and former flight safety official at Transport Canada, said it is "unusual" for the pilots' association to issue such a bulletin, which he said pilots call a CYA (which stands for cover your ass).

"Obviously enough things have happened that the airline pilots union and the Transportation Safety Board and so on want to be seen to be doing something active," Williams told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday.

But such a warning puts the onus on pilots, he said, when they have a lot to consider when they land at an airport.

"Most pilots fear the taxiing around an airport far more than they ever do a flight," Williams said. "When we're flying we know exactly what to do. But when we land, particularly at an unfamiliar airport, we have no idea where they're going to ask us to go."

Reading NAV Canada's small airport diagrams — which are only a few inches square — particularly for a five-runway airport like Pearson, is difficult for pilots to do to make split-second decisions.

"It's really easy if you're not doing anything else," Williams said. "But if you're trying to steer an airplane and carry out your after-landing checks and getting ready for your arrival at the ramp, you're pretty busy."

Pilots can ask for more thorough instructions from ground controllers, Williams said, which would include exactly where and when to turn in order to get to the gate. But airports must consider changes when there have been numerous safety-related incidents, he said.

'There's still human error'

Some airports have installed specific lights that lead planes directly where they need to go, he said. Airports can also improve runway and taxiway signage, and also consider turning off lights entirely in areas where planes shouldn't go to help pilots know which directions to avoid.

While airport lighting is set to a government standard, each airport can make some of those helpful changes, he said.

"Remember with a jet aircraft, when you turn into the wrong place, you can't go into reverse and move your plane out of the way," Williams said. "One airplane sitting in the wrong location can really foul up an airport."

While Pearson is Canada's busiest airport, it is not any more complicated or dangerous than any other in the world, Williams said.

"But it's dangerous if you get a cocky pilot or co-pilot who thinks he can find his way without instruction and tries to read this dinky little map," he said.

Despite the recent incursions at Pearson, airline travel is still the safest mode of transportation, Williams said.

"But it has potential for tremendous danger," he said.

"Everyone is as careful as they can be. Everyone is watching out. But there's still human error and there always will be. What we've got to do is minimize the chance by suitably installing warning lights and things of that sort."

With files from Metro Morning and Lauren Pelley

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