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Board's advice on air-crash fires shot down

Transport Canada rejects report

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Wreckage of plane that crashed near Vancouver in 2011, killing two pilots.

TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Wreckage of plane that crashed near Vancouver in 2011, killing two pilots.

VANCOUVER -- Changing the way aircraft are designed in order to save lives by limiting fires after plane crashes wouldn't be simple and wouldn't 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 a cockpit fire fuelled by arcing wires connected to the plane's battery left them with fatal burns. An investigator told a news conference 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, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and regulators in Europe have instead focused 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 the pilot's 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, adding widespread change would be extremely slow, as many aircraft remain in operation for decades before they are replaced.

Though 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, the relocation of fuel tanks, changes to fuel systems and improved fire insulation.

The report also called for the Federal Aviation Administration to revive a proposed policy document prepared in 1990 that called for improvements to fuel systems to reduce dangerous spills in 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.

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 any proposed changes would likely be too costly to justify.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2013 A9

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