Acknowledging an “incredible safety record” overall in Canadian and U.S. commercial air transport, some representatives of airline pilots, air carriers and government agencies involved in remote northern flight operations say the time has come for regional improvements. One initiative seeks to enhance airports and airline operations as growing traffic reflects high demand for scheduled service into, out of and over the isolated arctic reaches of both countries, says Peter Black, a Boeing 767 captain for First Air and chairman of the President’s Committee for Remote Operations. This working group, which was created in 2012 by the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), held ALPA’s first Operations at Remote Airports Conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, in May.
The committee has been assigned “to partner with our industry and government colleagues to provide first-hand operational experience, to work to identify ways to ensure continued safe operations, and to provide recommendations that advocate for a single, high level of safety in airline operations regardless of whether we are talking about [Canada’s] Rankin Inlet … Chesterfield Inlet and Resolute Bay or [Alaska’s] Sitka and big places like Anchorage,” said Sean Cassidy, an Alaska Airlines captain and first vice president and national safety coordinator, ALPA.
Regulations and processes oriented primarily to major international airlines are inappropriate for the airports of the North, said Stephen Nourse, executive director, Northern Air Transport Association. “The North matters to Canada; it’s becoming increasingly important in sovereignty, resource and other economic aspects,” he said. “Many of our carriers are the sole lifeline into remote communities, a good number of which are aboriginal. In many of these locations, our members provide the only year-round transportation. We are the local bus, the grocery truck, the ambulance.”
Sparse may be the best single word to describe Canada’s most remote areas, where controversy has surrounded some of the mandatory changes being implemented by Transport Canada, such as runway end safety areas (RESAs; ASW, 8/08, p. 22), said Daniel Auger, assistant deputy minister, Government of the Northwest Territories. The current Canadian requirement calls for a 60-m (197-ft) buffer at the end of any runway that is 800 m (2,625 ft) or longer and recommends an additional 90-m (295-ft) RESA for runways that are 1,200 m (3,937 ft) or longer (ASW, 6/13).
RESAs for the North are only “a theory on paper, but the reality is quite different,” and funds should be spent first for other safety purposes, Auger said. “The current system is safe from an airport operations [perspective] and also from the air carriers’ perspective, so we are always looking for opportunity to improve our infrastructure … in partnership with communities or even with air carriers,” he said. “One-size-fits-all does not work at all.”
Nourse argued that exemptions from RESA mandates would be consistent with other precedents, saying, “What we are opposed to is the blanket imposition of RESAs without taking a look at specific circumstances and where they make sense on both the risk and the feasibility basis. Rough estimates for the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are that it would cost $40 million for each territory to implement the legislative mandate in its current form.
“In terms of project prioritization, one that many of our operators would like to see is more paved runways, particularly where there are longer runways in place. In all three territories combined, there are only 10 paved runways. … The [U.S.] state of Alaska … has 61 paved runways.” He listed other regional priorities as overcoming restrictions due to unavailability of aviation fuel; lack of adequate lighting, particularly approach lighting; and connectivity of lighting for the long, dark winter.
Nunavut territory, for perspective, has 25 hamlets, each typically with a population of about 1,000, and 24 single-runway airports, said Fred Fast, manager, standards and program development, Nunavut Airports, Government of Nunavut. From his analysis, the most effective safety advances would be achieved by establishing 24-hour weather coverage, and improving instrument approach procedures and approach lighting.
“An AWOS [automated weather observation station] is key for all sites that provide limited weather, so that weather observations are continuously fed into the weather data center … to maintain a complete weather picture,” he said.
Nunavut this year commissioned a northern airports usability study to determine improvements required to achieve major gains from any new instrument approach procedures. A qualified approach designer found in some cases, however, that even the most advanced approach procedure might not place the aircraft lower than 500 ft above ground level for various reasons. “We could have LPV [localizer performance with vertical guidance] approaches to 250 ft if they were designed today,” he said. “The next step … will be to determine for those sites — where it is worthwhile looking at upgrading from non-instrument to non-precision [certification] — how feasible that will be.”
Modern approach lighting greatly raises the probability of safely completing landings in poor visibility. “If we had an LPV approach to 250 ft, then at the 250-ft mark, chances are the pilot would see the ODALS [omnidirectional approach lighting system] or the high-intensity approach lighting … we should at least be looking at ODALS for a number of the airports,” Fast said.
The operational safety challenges of flights in these areas have emerged as a major concern to Canadian air carriers and to the Air Transport Association of Canada [ATAC], said John McKenna, president and CEO, ATAC. “Operating aircraft in the North with the existing airport infrastructure produces higher costs for its customers and increased safety concerns,” he said. “The majority of the runways are gravel airstrips. … As a result, there are increased safety concerns and service issues associated with flying older equipment.”
His objections to mandatory RESAs include concerns about cases where runway changes are impeded by the topography or the cost of expansion. McKenna said, “If, as suggested, the runways’ usable lengths are shortened to take into account the RESA, the size of the aircraft that can use them also decreases [and] would exclude the use of larger, multiengine aircraft.”
Airline dispatchers also have some safety concerns — many of which should be resolved by federal investments in technology upgrades, said Russ Williams, president of the Canadian Airline Dispatchers Association. “[Dispatchers] have got to count on the status of the airport, [accurate data for] weather phenomena and a lot of local knowledge,” he said. “You’ve got to rely on the navigation aids, and you’ve ultimately got to understand the limitations of the airport [including] ‘softer’ things for customers, whether there is a customs or hospital service.”
Currently, only two destinations above 60 degrees North latitude — Whitehorse and Yellowknife — are served with narrow-body aircraft by the major Canadian air carriers Air Canada, Air Transat, Jazz and WestJet, said Louis Thériault, manager, operational and regulatory, National Airlines Council of Canada. “For the rest of the airports in northern regions, only some will qualify as ‘adequate’ airports,” he said. “Wide-body operations [by these council members] in the Boeing 767, Airbus A310/A330 and 777 are engaged in overflights in the northern area on ETOPS (extended operations) 180-minute criteria.” These typically include trans-Atlantic, North Pacific and/or polar routes.
Airport sites in the Canadian North that qualify as ETOPS alternates for such overflights — if they meet the conditions on the day of the flight — include Goose Bay, Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse. In Alaska, typical ETOPS alternates are Anchorage, Fairbanks, King Salmon and Cold Bay.
“[Because of] most of the flights originating from either the West going east or northeast, and vice versa from the Pacific into Canada and from the south, the Hudson Bay area is an extremely busy sector,” Thériault said. “In the past year, NAV Canada reported at least 35,000 [overflight] movements just in that area.”
The reality that pilots of an overflying aircraft might need to conduct an emergency landing in the Hudson Bay area was illustrated in 2002 by an Air France 777 emergency diversion to Churchill prompted by a windshield fire, he said.1
The instrument landing system (ILS) was inoperative that day, so the flight crew conducted a nondirectional beacon (NDB) approach until below clouds and then conducted an uneventful visual approach and landing on the 9,200-ft (2,804-m) runway, he said. Safe landing was the highest priority; because the airport had no tow bars for the aircraft to be deplaned at the gate, one evacuation slide was deployed for deplaning.
An air navigation service provider (ANSP) works to ensure that airline operations in/over remote areas have the same level of support as everywhere else, according to Chuck Montgomery, director of aeronautical information services, flight operations, and communication-navigation-surveillance operations for NAV Canada. Operational discipline linked with technology holds the key to safe operations in the most remote areas known for thousands of square nautical miles of bogs and permafrost that can “play havoc” with NAV Canada–operated navigation systems, he said.
NAV Canada’s focus has included upgrading flight management system (FMS; ARINC 424) coding to resolve issues with LPV approaches in northern domestic airspace and resolving NDB approach procedure–overlay issues caused by some older coding paradigms.
“We’re in the middle of doing some tests of RNP [required navigation performance] procedures in northern domestic airspace,” Montgomery said. “Working with Jeppesen, we’ve been setting up pretesting of FMS instrument procedures prior to … operational use. We used to have about two to eight flagged-data alerts each month around FMS issues; we have had zero since the program commenced. [Jeppesen will] be doing the RNP development at major airports as well as the smaller airports in the country where there is the equipage and where there is the need.”
Eventually, pilots flying to remote airports also will benefit from an enhanced controller–pilot data link communication system, which already is the primary communication method on North Atlantic routes. “We’re going to start increasing the complexity of the message over time, which will allow communication to any aircraft anywhere in the country,” Montgomery said.
Air traffic controllers’ space-based surveillance of aircraft in remote areas also is poised for transformational improvements, he added. “We have ADS–B [automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast stations now] to provide surveillance over Hudson Bay.”
Programs under way also include deployment of AWOS and live-link video cameras throughout the North, and elsewhere, to provide 24/7 data feeds that increase the reliability of terminal area forecasts.
During risk mitigation, the aviation industry should apply a risk-based strategy but also consider social and economic realities, especially for remote airports, said Aaron McCrorie, director of standards, Transport Canada.
Transport Canada scheduled a detailed risk and cost-benefit assessment during the second half of 2013 to respond to the various stakeholders’ resistance to RESAs. A similar method will be used to analyze some stakeholders’ cost-based resistance to implementing safety management systems for small remote airports.
“I’ve never heard any sort of request in the North to have any different safety standard, but clearly when we look at the cost-benefit of any particular initiative from a regulatory point of view, the math is very different when you’re talking about a fairly sparsely populated area of the country,” said Martin Eley, director general of Transport Canada.
As a general concept, standardization and harmonization of infrastructure and procedures are preferable, said Chris Glaeser, director global safety, International Air Transport Association. “On the other hand, I think there needs to be [room for] exception. … To not be able to use the capability of having a non-precision or precision instrument approach at an airport where the lights are already installed … because the RESA is water or tundra instead of gravel, that might be an area where an exemption could be granted. Then maybe, over time, bring in gravel or whatever. There are opportunities to have it both ways.”
On a superficial level, the safety function that remote airports perform in daily domestic operations and the function that they might perform as emergency landing sites may seem in opposition, said Dan Elwell, senior vice president, safety, security and operations, Airlines for America. “But they are not mutually exclusive at all. … Any of these improvements … for the local operators are good for us.” New, mutually beneficial commercial arrangements with stakeholder airlines should be explored for that purpose, he said.
- Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Cockpit Fire — Precautionary Landing, Air France, Boeing 777-228ER F-GSPZ, Churchill, Manitoba 290 nm NE, 17 October 2002. Aviation Investigation Report no. A02C0227.
Two Days in the Life
Tanice Steiner, a Calm Air captain flying scheduled ATR-42 service within Canada’s Central and Arctic Region, described operational safety challenges that she experienced in May 2013 during a two-day trip. For comparison, her background includes mid-winter operations to high-Arctic destinations such as Grise Fiord, Nunavut territory, in which risk factors also include 24-hour darkness and weeks-long temperatures/wind chills of about minus 40 degrees C/F. She is a member of the President’s Committee for Remote Operations, Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA).
“The change of seasons is always the most challenging time in the Arctic — the weather can change instantly,” Steiner told the ALPA Operations at Remote Airports Conference in Ottawa, recalling her expected first-day routing from Churchill to Arviat, Whale Cove, Rankin Inlet, Chesterfield Inlet and Baker Lake, all in Nunavut. The weather forecast for Arviat and Baker Lake called for visual meteorological conditions (VMC).
“Whale Cove, Rankin Inlet and Chesterfield Inlet had 600-ft to 700-ft ceilings,” she said, recalling that a two-day blizzard — shutting down aviation in the entire Kivalliq Region — had ended the previous night. “Temperatures were hovering around 0 to 4 degrees C [32 to 39 degrees F; with] rain. We notified our passengers that there was a chance that we couldn’t get in everywhere. I took fuel for Rankin, holding Baker as our alternate — and 300 lb [136 kg] of extra contingency fuel in case we had to do multiple approaches. I ended up bumping just over 1,000 lb [454 kg] of freight to make the landing weight in Arviat and to take on the extra gas.”
The Churchill-Arviat leg was uneventful; some passengers deplaned at Arviat, and the corresponding cargo, primarily groceries, was delivered. As the airplane descended later toward Whale Cove, the crew of a departing ATR advised that the ceiling was 600 ft and the runway was clear, but the ramp was slush- and water-covered. “We flew the NDB [nondirectional beacon] approach onto Runway 15, landed … and navigated the ramp,” she said. “A King Air medevac was taking up much of the dry area of the runway so I did my best to park in a somewhat dry spot. … The ramp was a mess. There were a few pallets placed to walk over the water to get to the terminal, but those had been swallowed up by the melt. We had quite a bit of freight … so I shut down the aircraft and deplaned our [Whale Cove] passengers. I advised our through passengers to stay on board.”
Checking weather for the remaining destinations, the current weather data at Baker Lake included a 300-ft ceiling and Rankin Inlet still reported a 700-ft ceiling. “The terminal area forecast [TAF] for Rankin had a temporary period of 300-ft. Baker’s TAF was amended … to 300 ft for the entire period — I had just lost my one and only alternate,” Steiner said. She reviewed the options with a company dispatcher.
“We couldn’t go VFR [visual flight rules] to Rankin, and we didn’t have enough gas to fly to Rankin and hold Churchill as our alternate,” Steiner said. “We were just 300 lb short. The only options were to wait for the weather, which was not forecast to get better for the next six to eight hours, or fly ‘NO ALT’ [under VFR with no alternate airport] to Churchill. The passengers were notified, and most of them continued with us. We flew the one hour back to Churchill … with the intention of picking up fuel and continuing on our trip. … Fueling [at Churchill] had to be stopped halfway due to unforecast thunderstorms in the area. Once the thunderstorm had passed, I checked the weather up north again.”
This time, the new TAFs called for the remaining destinations to be at or below minimums at the estimated times of arrival. “There was also a SIGMET [significant weather advisory] issued for the Rankin area for severe clear icing,” she said. “I called dispatch again, and we both decided to cancel the rest of our day. The only airport that was calling VFR was Chesterfield Inlet. By the time we would have landed in [Chesterfield], it would have been dark.”
Darkness was significant because of her doubts that the Chesterfield Inlet runway condition actually would be 100 percent bare and dry as reported. Steiner said she had landed at the airport many times in previous weeks based on such a condition report, but after the first 200 ft to 400 ft (61 m to 122 m), the runway’s width actually was reduced because of snow banks about 3 ft to 5 ft (0.9 m to 1.5 m) high by at least 30 ft (9 m) on one side and 10 ft (3 m) on the other side. Also, snow had covered at least 70 percent of the runway lights, she said. “The difference between the NOTAM [notice to airmen] and the actual conditions of the runway can be quite significant,” Steiner said. “And this is becoming routine at many remote locations.”
The following morning’s scheduled trip was from Churchill to Baker Lake, then Chesterfield Inlet, Rankin Inlet, Arviat, Churchill and Thompson. Weather information showed VMC at Baker Lake and Arviat, with Rankin Inlet and Chesterfield Inlet continuing to have ceilings between 600 ft and 700 ft. “Churchill was now one-quarter mile [400 m] visibility in fog,” she said. “We had to delay our departure time for one hour and wait for the fog to lift. Our only alternates that morning were Thompson and Gillam [in adjacent Manitoba Province].”
Upon landing at Baker Lake, leaving the payload and checking weather, she found that conditions were improving. During the flight crew’s arrival, conditions at Chesterfield Inlet were reported as 3,000-ft ceiling and 15-mi (24 km) visibility. “We flew down to the minimum safe altitude, and we were still on top of the clouds,” she said. “I could see the fog bank directly over the runway, and the town was clear. We flew the circling NDB approach into [Chesterfield] and broke out of clouds just above minimums. We landed … and the runway … was bare and dry, but still had approximately 50 percent of the runway lights snow-covered.” The partial reduced width of the runway actually was as she had suspected.
Checking weather again, the TAF for Rankin Inlet and points south called for scattered ceilings at 800 ft. Arviat was at minimums, and Churchill was 300 ft overcast, but Rankin would now work as an alternate under instrument flight rules. “We departed Chesterfield and continued on our day,” Steiner said. “By the time we got to Arviat, it was VFR again. Then we landed in Churchill, we broke out of clouds on the ILS [instrument landing system, which had a decision height of 250 ft] at 300 ft. … We arrived in Thompson … 30 minutes late and on a beautiful, sunny, clear 22-degree F [minus 6 degrees C] day.
“This trip isn’t a one-off. These sorts of weather events occur much more often in the North. … [In May,] we had a planeload of people and a lot of groceries that were cut off from their communities for more than two days. Well-trained pilots, aircraft and airports are the lifeline for these communities. So if I can’t get in because of weather, or lack of equipment, it has a tremendous impact.”