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Preventing post crash fires complicated: Transport Canada

Aug. 6, 2013, 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.


August 6, 2013
By James Keller | The Canadian Press

Aug. 6, 2013, 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.

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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.

All of the passengers were seriously injured, and the passenger
seated closets to the cockpit was burned and suffered smoke
inhalation, according to the Transportation Safety Board.

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

One of the passengers' lawyers, J.J. Camp, said that while most
of his clients weren't burned by the subsequent fire, it
"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.''