Canada Moves to Reduce Air Crashes

A life-saving device that prevents mid-air collisions will likely be mandatory on Canadian commercial aircraft by the end of the year, the federal government announced yesterday.

Thirteen years after the U.S. made collision avoidance systems compulsory, Transport Canada is taking a similar step that will warn pilots when they are too close to other aircraft.

The move comes three months after an investigation into aviation safety by The Hamilton Spectator, Toronto Star and The Record of Waterloo Region which found more than 80,000 passengers have been put at risk over the past five years by near misses in Canadian skies.

The findings, based on never-before-released Transport Canada data, included more than 800 incidents between 2001 and mid-2005 in which planes got too close to each other -- about one incident every two days. In some cases, planes were seconds away from colliding.

Transport Canada's proposed regulations, which will be published today for industry feedback over the next month, are the result of a decade of deliberations and little action.

"We're pleased that it has come about and disappointed that it took so long to be implemented in Canada," said Art LaFlamme, senior air safety co-ordinator with the Air Line Pilots Association and former director general of civil aviation with Transport Canada.

"I'm not sure why it took so long. Perhaps the (newspaper) stories helped to bump up the priority. That would be my personal assessment."

Earlier this week, Transport Canada announced it will publish new aviation rules this month that will impose new restrictions on commercial pilots landing in poor visibility at Canadian airports.

It took a decade to enact those rules, 10 years in which major accidents have claimed lives, the recent Torstar investigation reported. Transport Canada's own analysis shows eight accidents from 1994 to 1999 --killing seven people and injuring 26 -- that might have been prevented by tougher Canadian rules.

The "airborne collision avoidance systems" (ACAS) are sophisticated devices that provide aural and visual alerts when aircraft come too close together.

Proposed Transport Canada guidelines will require the devices be installed on all recently manufactured aircraft. For older planes, commercial aircraft operators will have two years to have the equipment installed.

Commercial planes ranging from air taxi operations with nine or fewer passengers to small commuter planes with 10 to 19 passengers to larger passenger jets will all be required to have some form of the ACAS installed, said Transport Canada spokesperson Lucie Vignola.

Private planes -- such as Cessnas, gliders and crop sprayers -- will remain excluded.

ACAS systems range from $30,000 to $250,000. Transport Canada has no figures on the total number of planes that will need to have the systems installed, but estimates it will cost airlines $39 million to implement.

Most large Canadian commercial airplanes flown by airlines such as Air Canada and WestJet already have the devices installed in order to comply with American or European regulations.

But equipping smaller regional planes with the warning system will have a significant impact on public safety, say experts.

Transport Canada incident data reveals thousands of close calls between commercial planes and smaller aircraft that don't have the technology.

"It has to be installed on all aircraft to be effective," says Captain Bob Perkins, Canadian air safety co-ordinator for the Air Line Pilots Association, whose membership includes pilots with Air Canada Jazz, Air Transat and CanJet. "There's going to be more airplanes out there equipped with the proper hardware to make the system work the way it should work. It's a very big step in the right direction."

Transport Canada figures show 1,073 collisions, near collisions or "losses of separation" from 1991 to 2001.

"In all 1,073 occurrences at least one of the aircraft would have been required to have ACAS installed if this proposal had been in force at the time of the occurrence," says a report published on the agency's website last night. "As air traffic increases, the potential for aircraft intruding on each other's airspace with consequent risk of collision, especially in the busiest terminal areas, will increase as well."

A Bearskin Airlines turboprop collided in the air with a Piper Navajo in 1995 near Sioux Lookout, killing eight people. A Transportation Safety Board investigation into the case found that collision avoidance devices could have averted the disaster and saved lives.

The Thunder Bay-based airline has collision avoidance technology on only three of its nine airplanes.

"The costs will be substantial," says Brad Martin, director of operations for the airline. "It boils down to how safe is safe? But if you're forcing everyone to have it, then there's a better chance of making the system work."

Experts say cost has been the main reason for the long delay in implementing the change.

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