Transport Canada continues to allow bad-weather landings in Canada that would be unheard of at U.S. airports, despite repeated warnings that planes and lives are at risk.
The federal aviation regulator hopes to have new rules in place by Dec. 1, but they will still be less strict than in the U.S. and U.K., and will exempt many aircraft as well as smaller airports in the northern territories.
Transport Canada's changes have been mired in a cumbersome industry consultation process for a decade, during which major accidents have claimed lives.
Transport Canada's own analysis found eight accidents between 1994 and 1999 that might have been prevented by tougher Canadian rules. The crashes killed seven people and injured 26, causing $38 million in destroyed or damaged planes.
In 2002, a Transportation Safety Board report said 34 people had been killed and 28 seriously injured between 1994 and 2001 in mishaps "where low visibilities and/or ceilings contributed to the accident."
The Air Transport Association of Canada, which represents airlines, says it is opposed to new landing rules until there is more evidence they would enhance safety.
Landings are guided by "approach bans," which set minimum standards for visibility to ensure pilots don't make unsafe landings because of pressure from their employers to stay on schedule, overconfidence in their own flying skills, or inexperience.
"The existing (Canadian) approach ban is terribly inadequate," said Bob Perkins, air safety co-ordinator of the Air Line Pilots Association and a veteran commercial pilot. "People are just doing approaches when they shouldn't be."
An ongoing investigation into aviation safety by the Toronto Star, Hamilton Spectator and The Record of Waterloo Region has found a system straining at the seams in increasingly crowded skies.
Canadian regulations for landings are so lax that Air Canada insists its pilots obey the company's own, tougher rules.
The country's largest carrier brought in those rules after one of its regional jets crashed attempting a low-visibility landing in Fredericton in 1997, seriously injuring nine of 42 on board.
But many airlines say they abide by the current rules. More than half of scheduled airline flights in Canada are operated by carriers other than Air Canada and thousands of flights head into remote or small-town airports where a loophole in the rules allows landings with zero visibility.
Canada's safety board says the current rules allow approaches when the weather is well below the visibility needed for a safe landing. It wants Transport Canada to "close the barn door," stopping pilots from even trying the dangerous landings, said Nick Stoss, director of air investigations for the TSB.
Canadian rules allow landing approaches at most major airports if the electronically measured visibility near the end of the runway is 1,200 feet (366 metres) or more. This reading is supposed to approximate the ability of a pilot to see lights fading into the distance along the runway.
The issue is whether a reading of 1,200 feet allows pilots to see far enough ahead to safely line up with the centre of the landing strip.
To get a sense of the distance, imagine looking down from the CN Tower observation deck and barely being able to see the Gardiner Expressway. That's how little a pilot can see and still be allowed to approach a major Canadian airport.
At the typical landing speed of a jet, 1,200 feet visibility means anything more than five seconds ahead of the plane is lost in the murk.
"If everything has worked out up to those last seconds," Perkins said, "you will see the last approach light or two ... you'll see the runway lights, and you will have five seconds to determine if the airplane is lined up adequately and in the right vertical plane to be able to touch down on the runway."
If something goes wrong in that time frame, says the TSB's Stoss, "their ability to be able to correct for whatever is going wrong is a difficult situation."
At major airports in the northern U.S., the required visibility is never less than 1,800 feet, and is often 2,400 feet or more, depending on the topography below the approach path.
Early last year, something went very wrong on Jetsgo flight 191.
Toronto brothers Tom and Adam Marynairczyk were aboard the plane, headed for a Banff skiing holiday on Jan. 20, 2005. "I don't remember ever seeing fog this thick," said Adam. "It was just a thick cloud of nothing."
In the cockpit, the pilots were bathed in the glow of their electronic instruments, gliding down an invisible approach path created by the instrument landing system on Calgary's runway 34. But as the plane touched down, things went badly.
"First of all we hit hard; we could feel the big bump and then it never stopped bumping," said Tom. The landing was so brutal that several oxygen masks fell and the overhead panels were torn from their sockets.
Instead of rolling down the centre of the runway, the plane travelled 550 metres through the grass and struck a runway sign. With a damaged and partly crippled aircraft, the pilots took off and circled in the ice-fog conditions before declaring an emergency and landing again. One of the pilots then announced that the whole procedure had been "normal."
"You probably had saw (sic) some trucks," he can be heard saying on a home video made by the Marynairczyk brothers. "(This is the) normal process."
The brothers weren't so sure, especially after they saw the first officer crying and slumped over the controls.
But it was all within the rules.
The Transportation Safety Board report on the incident says landing visibility was reported at 1,400 feet, allowing the Jetsgo pilots to see about six seconds ahead.
But the report also says because the pilots were looking down as well as forward, part of the view would have been obscured by the nose of the aircraft, reducing effective visibility to about 600 feet, or less than three seconds.
Freezing fog swirling around the aircraft may have made the situation even more confusing to the pilots.
Just 20 metres above the ground, the pilot banked the aircraft to the left and the plane touched down barely on the pavement. "There were insufficient visual cues during the landing phase to enable the pilots to judge the aircraft's orientation to the runway. As a result, the aircraft landed left of the centreline and failed to remain on the runway," the board wrote.
The TSB doesn't speculate on why the pilot drifted to the left, but one former Jetsgo insider believes the pilot mistook the runway-edge lighting for runway centreline lighting, which Calgary, like most Canadian airports, does not have.
As it had in previous reports, the board called Transport Canada to task for its inadequate rules.
A similar accident had occurred just the year before in Edmonton.
A First Air 737 touched down two metres to the left of the runway in Edmonton and ran through the snow for half a kilometre before the pilots were able to get the plane back onto the pavement. A runway sign was partially sucked into the left engine and there were numerous punctures and dents in the fuselage. The landing visibility for the runway was reported at the minimum allowable 1,200 feet, but rescue crews had to use heat-sensing cameras to find the plane in the dense fog.
"With deteriorating visibility and only runway-edge lighting for guidance, the captain was unable to manoeuvre the aircraft to stay within the confines of the runway," the TSB determined.
Air Canada wouldn't have allowed its pilots to do what the Jetsgo and First Air pilots tried to do.
Air Canada's rules impose ever-stricter requirements for both procedures and crew training the further the electronically measured landing visibility drops below 2,600 feet. Approaches are banned with less than 1,600 feet landing visibility except on runways with the most sophisticated runway lighting systems, such as certain runways in Toronto and Vancouver.
The airline's rules are even tougher when there aren't precise electronic landing aids in place.
"We're able to just take the regulatory requirement and enhance it where it needs to be enhanced to provide us with a level of safety that we like to see in our operations," said Jim Dunnett, manager of standards for the airline.
"Essentially, we just tailored it to make it fit our aircraft and our crews and our rules, whereas Transport Canada has the task of making something that's got to fit everybody and that's a lot more complicated."
WestJet, Air Canada's main competitor, said it complies with existing Transport Canada regulations and allows pilots to land using the Transport Canada minimums. The airline has Transport Canada's approval to use satellite navigation technology to guide planes on their approach paths, but this doesn't affect the minimum visibilities required to make an approach.
CanJet spokesman Wayne Morrison said his airline's pilots also follow the Transport Canada rules "to the letter," landing as low as 1,200 feet visibility.
The new proposals, in the works since 1997, would still allow low-visibility landings that would be banned in the U.S. and the U.K. The regulations exclude business, private and flight school aircraft.
Most airliner crews would be able to land with 1,600 feet of visibility at major airports. On those rare runways with runway-centre lights, most commercial airliners would be able to land with the same whisker-thin margins allowed now. On runways at secondary airports without the guidance equipment for precision instrument approaches, greater visibility would be required.
Transport Canada has faced fierce industry opposition to even these modest proposals. "It could have a substantial impact on a place like Halifax, for instance, which has fog issues on a regular basis," said Fred Gaspar, a registered lobbyist and vice president of policy with the Air Transport Association of Canada. He wants more evidence the rules would make flying safer.
Transport Canada should give the carriers latitude to set their own rules, he added.
The TSB's Stoss said the changes proposed by Transport Canada, if put in place, "will significantly reduce the safety deficiency we pointed out in our recommendations."
Speaking for the pilots, Perkins says Transport Canada hasn't gone far enough in increasing the required visibility and he takes exception to the wide exemptions for some planes.
"Everyone is working with the same equipment, everybody is trying to land on the same runway with the same infrastructure, they should have the same rules," he said. "There should be one level of safety."
Both current and proposed approach ban regulations don't apply to situations where visibility suddenly degrades as a plane is landing, such as occurred when Air France flight 358 over-ran the end of a runway at Toronto's Pearson airport last August, then crashed and burned in a ravine. Everyone escaped in that accident.
One of the loopholes in current regulations allows for landings with no visibility when there is no equipment to measure landing visibility. This affects hundreds of strips used by commercial carriers.
The proposed rules would plug this by allowing ordinary ground visibility to be used, so an approach ban would be in place at many airports where it is a free-for-all now.
However, Transport Canada will exclude airports north of the 60th parallel from this requirement.
Even with the new rules, one huge difference from U.S. airports would remain.
In the U.S., if the visibility value is below the limit for an approach, air traffic controllers tell the pilot to go elsewhere, said Laura Brown of the Federal Aviation Administration.
In Canada, controllers merely provide advice.
"We tell them what the RVR (runway visual range) is supposed to be and they advise us of their intentions. The pilot makes the decision," said Kathy Fox, vice-president of operations with Nav Canada, which manages the country's air traffic control towers.
That leaves it open for pilots to "bust the limits" by approaching anyway, and landing even if the runway can't be seen when the plane is 200 feet above the runway.
Pilots are subject to fines for breaking the regulations, but the TSB has noted that the regulation requiring an aborted landing if the runway can't be seen is "unenforceable."
After the pilot of a small Beech airliner died in a low-visibility accident near Sept Iles, Que., in 1999, the TSB commented that "for whatever reason - operational pressures, pride, commitment to the job - some pilots continue to conduct approaches in weather conditions where there is little chance of completing a safe landing."
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