The Runway End Safety Area Debate

A runway end safety area (RESA) is a clear graded area at the end of a runway intended to reduce the risk of damage to an aircraft which overruns the runway.  ICAO Annex 14, Aerodrome Design and Operations, prescribes a standard international RESA of 90 metres for runways coded 3 or 4 from the end of the runway strip and recommends a RESA of 240 metres where practicable.

When the standard RESA was introduced in Annex 14, Canada determined that it was impractical to comply with this standard and filed with ICAO a “Difference” stating:

“Canada does not provide runway end safety areas …”

That position reflected Transport Canada’s concern that the geography of many Canadian airports would not practically permit an extension of at least 90 metres at each end.

The “Difference” has been the subject of growing criticism by the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (“TSB).  In its report on the 2005 Air France A340 overrun at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport, the TSB noted that although the GTAA had established a de facto RESA of 90 metres at the end of the affected runway 24L, it was followed immediately by a ravine.  The TSB recommended that:

“The Department of Transport require all code 4 runways to have a 300m runway end safety area or a means of stopping aircraft that provides an equivalent level of safety.”

In its report on the overrun of a Boeing 727 at Moncton Airport in March 2010, the TSB was more strident commenting:

“The Board has identified safety areas beyond the runway’s end as a key measure against damage and injuries resulting from overruns.  Despite this, Transport Canada has still not changed its policy…”

We expect that the TSB’s final reports on two recent overruns at Ottawa International Airport will include still more forceful recommendations that Transport Canada adopt a standard 300m RESA.

In March of 2010, the TSB launched a “watch list” of transportation safety issues, which it believed posed the greatest risk to Canadians.  On that list, it included:

“Landing accidents and runway overruns continue to occur at Canadian airports.”

ICAO statistics indicate that from 2000 to 2010, there has been an average of 32 overrun events per year.  According to Transport Canada, the Canadian statistic is three to four times this world average.  Leaving aside the issue of whether these statistics include “veer offs” as well as runway end overruns, they have been sufficient to force Transport Canada to reconsider its position.  A recent statement by Transport Canada indicates that the only other ICAO members which do not provide runway end safety areas are Greece, Russia and Uzbekistan.

In 2010, as a part of the CARAC process, Transport Canada issued a notice of proposed amendment, which would require all code 4 runways to have a RESA of at least 90 metres from the end of the runway strip.

This proposal has encountered strong opposition from the Northern Air Transport Association (“NATA”), which argues the unsuitability of the proposed RESA regulations for northern airports.  NATA argues that the cost of building RESAs at some northern airports would be prohibitive, resulting in a reduction of air services to communities already receiving limited service.  NATA points out that aircraft using many northern airports land at speeds far below those of larger aircraft operating in the south.  In the north, where many runways have gravel surfaces, NATA urges that the priority for limited capital expenditures should be the paving of existing runways, not the construction of new RESAs.

Transport Canada has now assigned the proposed review of RESAs to an independent risk assessment group, which will try to determine a reasonable length for a standard RESA in Canada and will consider whether flexibility can be introduced to any regulation to permit the application of different standards to different regions within the country.

While the statistical frequency of aircraft runway overruns deserves attention, runway length may arguably be the least obvious and most expensive corrective measure.  By far, the largest number of these events occur in circumstances, like the Air France case, where the aircraft approaches the runway in rain, crosses the threshold high and lands far beyond the landing zone at speeds in excess of recommended procedures.  Runways may never be long enough to contain such landings.

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