The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, based on its safety issue investigation A18Q0140 into 18 occurrences on runways under construction at airports in Quebec and Nunavut, on December 15 issued a recommendation to NAV CANADA to publish graphic depictions of runway closures.
The goal of the recommendation, explains the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), is to help the information communicated on these hazards be more easily understood, giving a concern with the adequacy of regulatory surveillance of airports undergoing construction activities.
TSB initiated the investigation shortly after it began looking at an occurrence in June 2018 when runway rehabilitation work was being carried out at the Baie-Comeau Airport, Quebec. The safety watchdog then discovered 14 similar occurrences had taken place at 14 other airports in Quebec and Nunavut between 2013 and 2018.
One occurrence at an airport within the A18Q0140 investigation, for example, took place when the width of the runway was reduced, rather than the length, to allow for construction work without closing the runway. The investigation found that issues such as the construction method chosen, the visual aids used during construction, and the way that airport construction information is communicated to pilots can lead to pilots not being able to identify the open portion of the runway.
Some of these hazards, according to TSB, result from the complexity of the regulations and the absence of clear standards for airport construction and for preparing and approving construction plans. The investigation also found, that if the airport construction planning process places too much emphasis on external economic pressures to avoid closing the runway, there is an increased risk that not enough emphasis will be placed on safety.
TSB notes, that in the absence of both information on which method should be used for runway rehabilitation and standards and recommended practices, decisions in regards to operations during airport construction lie entirely with the airport operator. From its A18Q0140 report, TSB determined that construction operations plans were approved by Transport Canada (TC) using informal procedures, without assessing the risk that pilots might not be able to recognize or distinguish the closed portions of the runways, and without including control measures to mitigate this risk.
“Our investigation revealed an important systemic issue: The lack of Canadian standards or official recommended practices to be followed during airport construction,” said Kathy Fox, Chair, TSB. “This lack of operational safety standards can leave pilots without sufficient visual aids to clearly distinguish the closed parts on the runways.”
The investigation also found issues with the safety management systems (SMS) in place at the airports under review, in that SMS at the airports were not effective at proactively managing the risks associated with the reduction in the runway width. TBS also notes that TC’s surveillance policies and procedures were not being followed consistently, and that some of the key oversight procedures were not fully understood by TC’s inspectors.
Based on this investigation, TSB concluded it is concerned that if TC does not provide adequate surveillance of airports in Canada, the risk of an accident related to flight operations at airports increases, particularly when the airports are undergoing construction.
TSB also concluded that when an operator plans to carry out construction activities at their airport, they must communicate the necessary information to pilots by having a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) issued by NAV CANADA. Currently, NOTAMs in Canada are only published in text format and cannot include graphics, which can hinder the effective communication of information. As a result, TSB explains, even though the pilots had all read the available NOTAMs related to the partial runway closures, their mental models were inaccurate and they were not able to recognize or distinguish which portions were closed.
Based on these conclusions, as noted above, TSB on December 15, 2021, recommended that NAV CANADA make available, in a timely manner, graphic depictions of closures and other significant changes related to aerodrome or runway operations to accompany the associated NOTAMs, so that the information communicated on these hazards is more easily understood (Recommendation A21-01).