Preventing post-crash fires not as simple as TSB suggests: Transport Canada

VANCOUVER – Changing the way aircraft are designed to save lives by limiting fires after plane crashes wouldn’t be simple, nor would it be the most effective way to reduce aviation fatalities, a senior official with Transport Canada says.

Martin Eley was responding to a scathing report from the Transportation Safety Board that argued two pilots might still be alive if the federal government heeded recommendations that date back seven years. The safety board’s report last week probed an October 2011 crash near Vancouver’s airport, in which two pilots were killed and seven passengers were seriously injured when a turboprop plane slammed into a road while preparing for an emergency landing.

The board’s report concluded the pilots could have survived the crash, but instead, a cockpit fire fuelled by arcing wires connected to the plane’s battery left them with fatal burns. An investigator told a news conference that Transport Canada has repeatedly ignored recommendations first issued in 2006 to prevent or reduce the severity of post-crash fires, including introducing technology to disconnect aircraft batteries upon impact.

Eley, Transport Canada’s director general of civil aviation, said it would take significant research to evaluate whether such changes would even work, as well as the co-operation of foreign regulators.

He said Transport Canada, as well the U.S.-based Federal Aviation Administration and regulators in Europe, have instead focused their resources on preventing crashes in the first place, identifying the issues most associated with fatal crashes and concentrating on those. For example, Eley said half of all aviation fatalities are linked to either the pilots’ loss of aircraft control, controlled flight into terrain, or poor response to engine failure.

“Those areas contribute to the largest number of accidents, so the decision was made to focus on those things, which are clearly all about avoiding accidents, in preference to focusing on a particular piece that is not going to create the same impact in terms of the overall fatality numbers,” Eley said in an interview.

“The authorities have realized there is a limit to how much rule-making you can do. … If there is a lot of work to be done, let’s work on the areas where there is the biggest benefit.”

Eley said it would be difficult for Canada to unilaterally introduce new standards that differ from design specifications elsewhere in the world, and he argued that widespread change would be extremely slow, given that many aircraft remain in operation for decades before they are replaced.

While the issue of post-crash fires was highlighted in last week’s report, the Transportation Safety Board has been calling for changes for years.

The board issued a report in 2006 that made a number of recommendations for new and existing aircraft, including the introduction of technology that would kill the battery after a crash, as well as the relocation of fuel tanks, changes to fuel systems and improved fire insulation.

The report also called for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to revive a proposed policy document prepared in 1990, which called for improvements to fuel systems to reduce dangerous spills during a crash. The document was withdrawn in 1999 after the agency concluded “the costs of the proposed change are not justified by the potential benefits.”

Eley said if a similar cost-benefit analysis were conducted today, it would likely reach the same conclusion.

“A lot of things that are in there, that logic still exists,” he said.

“The numbers may have changed, but I’m not sure the answer would change. We haven’t done that analysis, because we don’t believe the landscape has changed.”

The Transportation Safety Board has compiled a summary of the federal government’s responses to its 2006 recommendations, which the board has repeatedly labelled “unsatisfactory.”

Those responses echo Eley’s recent comments, suggesting it would take too many resources to properly study the recommendations and that any proposed changes would likely be too costly to justify.

The Federal Aviation Administration was silent on the safety board’s recommendations until last year, according to the TSB’s summary, when the U.S. regulator merely repeated the reasons it withdrew its own policy proposal in 1999.

A spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration did not return a call seeking comment.

Olivia Chow, the federal transport critic for the Opposition NDP, said the debate about seven-year-old recommendations demonstrates a larger problem with the government — its unwillingness to listen to the advice of its own experts.

“It’s the first duty of the government to keep Canadians safe, whether we travel by rail or by plane,” Chow said in an interview following the release of the safety board report but before the recent comments from Transport Canada.

“Over and over again, experts’ directives are ignored. The transport minister, Lisa Raitt, needs to immediately implement all of the TSB recommendations. That should be our top priority.”

The accident near Vancouver’s airport involved a Beechcraft King Air twin-engine plane operated by Northern Thunderbird Air. It left the airport on Oct. 27, 2011, but turned around after the pilots noticed an oil leak about 15 minutes into the flight.

The safety board concluded a series of problems and mistakes contributed to the crash, beginning when maintenance crews failed to properly secure an engine oil cap and ending when the pilot applied power to only one propeller immediately before the crash.

The two pilots in the cockpit — 26-year-old Matt Robic and 44-year-old Luc Fortin — were alive when they were pulled from the aircraft, but later died in hospital.

Six of the seven surviving passengers filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Northern Thunderbird Air, alleging the airline and the pilots were negligent.

While none of the passengers were burned by the subsequent fire, one of their lawyers, J.J. Camp, said the fire “heightened the stress and the emotional scars” they were left with.

Camp, whose firm has a long history overseeing cases involving aviation crashes, said the TSB’s recommendations on post-impact fires should be a no-brainer for Transport Canada.

“If there are ways and means to prevent (fire-related fatalities) or at least contribute to preventing that, then those need to be found,” said Camp.

“What the TSB did in 2006 was make what we in the air-crash industry believe were reasonable and sensible recommendations.”

Camp acknowledged it would be difficult for Canada to introduce new design standards without other jurisdictions such as the U.S. and Europe on board — but he said it wouldn’t be impossible.

“Yes, there should be co-ordination between the respective air regulators around the world, but somebody has to go first,” said Camp.

“If Transport Canada wanted to make that change, they could, that’s the short answer. .. Once one of these senior agencies move on this front, the industry has to move. Imagine the spectre of producing aircraft that wouldn’t be certified in one of those jurisdictions. It is a huge red flag.”