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Improving Air Safety-Editorial
Improving air safety

Sun. Sep 7 - 4:45 AM

AVIATION safety has, it's fair to say, improved in the decade since Swissair Flight 111 went down off Nova Scotia, killing 229 men, women and children.

But in an industry where accidents can cost hundreds of lives in an instant, the public is right to ask if enough has been done to implement all the recommendations from the formal probe of the Swissair crash.

Headlines last week were less than reassuring. Only five of 23 recommendations from a four-year, $57-million investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada into the Sept. 2, 1998 disaster have been fully implemented. Seven more of the TSB's recommendations are rated satisfactory "in intent," meaning they'll be considered met once planned remedial actions are completed.

But that still leaves nearly half the recommendations rated either partly satisfactory (nine cases) or unsatisfactory (two). They remain unresolved, in many cases, due to a difference in opinion between the TSB, responsible for assessing safety in the industry, and Transport Canada, the industry regulator, about the level of potential risk avoided and so the priority of some recommended actions.

One of two recommendations the TSB says has garnered an "unsatisfactory" response, for example, urges reassessing some types of insulation still in use in older planes in Canada. Since the Swissair crash, the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) instituted a stringent standard for such materials in all newer planes. Meanwhile, Transport Canada says all high-risk insulation has also been removed from older planes, and the threat from any remaining low-risk material – contained away from wiring – in those aircraft is extremely limited, making the TSB's reassessment a low priority.

The reaction of groups like the Canadian Federal Pilots Association and organizations representing families of some of the Swissair victims, along with experts like former Nova Scotia chief medical examiner John Butt, suggests many observers want Transport Canada to go further in erring on the side of caution.

In other words, though the risks associated with some of the TSB's still active recommendations may be considered comparatively low, the flying public – as well as those who make their living with the airlines – no doubt want the government regulator to reduce chances of another horrific accident to a minimum. The current approach – Transport Canada would issue directives to deal with low-risk insulation in older planes if and when incidents occur – is hardly confidence-inspiring, despite Transport Canada assurances.

Swissair Flight 111, flying from New York to Geneva, crashed into St. Margarets Bay near Peggy's Cove, killing all aboard, because faulty wiring in the MD-11's entertainment system sparked while near flammable insulation, leading to a fire which knocked out pilot control of the plane. The TSB should continue to press that all the recommendations from their precedent-setting probe of that disaster be met.
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